Unfair Practices Alleged : Labor Department Sues Nursery Operator

Times Staff Writer

The Department of Labor has filed an unfair labor practices suit against National Growers Inc. of Fountain Valley, claiming that the wholesale nursery operator failed to pay the minimum wage and overtime rates to more than 100 workers.

Leroy Smith, the government's prosecutor, said that although all the alleged victims appear to be Latino, the Department of Labor was not contending that the workers are illegal aliens and had not singled out National Growers for hiring undocumented Mexicans.

"We don't even know if they are undocumented workers," Smith said. "They are agricultural workers, so a lot of people would assume that they are. But we don't know that for a fact."

The suit seeks unspecified damages on behalf of the workers.

Officials from National Growers, which operates wholesale nurseries in San Diego and Riverside counties, could not be reached for comment.

Earlier this week, a federal appeals court ruled that neither federal law nor any currently enforced California law makes the employment of illegal immigrants illegal.

On a 2-1 vote Tuesday, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld an arbitrator's decision ordering the reinstatement of two machine shop workers in South El Monte. The workers were fired after their employer, Bevles Co., a kitchen appliance manufacturer, decided that they were in the country illegally.

The arbitrator said the firings violated the workers' union rights and rejected the employer's claim that it could have been prosecuted for a crime for employing illegal aliens.

The arbitrator's conclusion "neither violates a clearly defined public policy nor is in manifest disregard of the law," said the appeals court. It said a 1974 California law appearing to prohibit the knowing employment of undocumented aliens was "dormant."

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