TALLAHASSEE — In the waning days of the 2011 legislative session, Sen. JD Alexander, one of the state's most powerful lawmakers, delivered an impassioned floor speech against a measure that would have required employers to check the immigration status of new hires.
Alexander, a Republican from Lake Wales, offered a firsthand account of housing guest workers from Mexico to help pick his crops.
"You can't get anybody to come do this stuff, folks. And it's the same thing, whether it's construction, or whether it's hotels. Americans don't want to do it," Alexander said moments before the Senate defeated the legislation, a top priority of Gov. Rick Scott.
Now, Alexander, who owns a farm in Polk County, is facing a lawsuit from two farmworkers who say he violated federal law by firing American citizens and green card holders and replacing them with guest workers.
Alexander, the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, declined to comment for this story.
"It's pending litigation," he said. "I've been advised not to comment."
According to the lawsuit, Jose Luis Castro-Mata, a green card holder who picked strawberries on Alexander's Blue Head Farms in the 2009-10 season, was fired after Alexander discovered he was not a guest worker, said Gregory Schell, part of the Migrant Farmworker Justice Project.
"They told him we don't need you anymore. Get lost," Schell said, adding that Alexander then hired guest workers instead.
Why would Alexander do that?
"Guest workers only can work for one employer, the one who got them their Visa. So they're less likely to complain," Schell said. "They want to hire the young motivated Mexican whose choice is to work here or go back to Third World poverty."
Schell's client isn't the only farmworker making that claim.
Colin Abbott, an attorney for Florida Rural Legal Services, represents about 100 American citizens and green card holders who say they, too, were dismissed and replaced with guest workers.
"They didn't receive the work that they were promised," said Abbott, who has not yet filed a lawsuit.
Abbott said he has met several times with Alexander's attorneys, and is trying to work out an agreement to get his clients — most of them black — paid for the work they were promised.
"Several of my clients have gone back to work at Blue Head. They don't consider Blue Head to be not a good employer. The fact is, that one season that just happened," Abbott said. "Pretty much we're looking for justice for the 2009-10 work season because they feel they didn't get the wages they deserved."
The suit filed by Schell on August 24 in U.S. District Court in Fort Myers, asks for lost wages for Castro-Mata as well as Miguel Patino-Flores, a guest worker from Mexico.
Both men say Alexander paid them $8.56 an hour, rather than the $9.08 rate set for guest workers in Florida by the U.S. Department of Labor in May 2009.
Although Castro-Mata was not a guest worker, federal law requires that growers pay domestic workers the same rate as guest workers.
Pay rates for guest workers, though, are being challenged in a federal court in North Carolina. In June 2009, a judge issued an injunction against the Department of Labor, freezing the old payment schedule.
David Koon, CFO of Alexander's Atlantic Blue Group, Inc., which includes Blue Head Farms, said the company used the old rate when paying workers in the 2009-2010 season.
"The company believes it acted applicably and legally," Koon said.
Schell said the decision to sue over the amount workers were paid per hour was included in the lawsuit to avoid a two-year statute of limitations on unpaid wage disputes.
"If the North Carolina court ultimately decides they should get the money, it doesn't do any good if the two-year statute of limitations has run out," Schell said. "We're about getting the people the money."
Janet Zink can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.