White Egret Farm: Waiting on a Thanksgiving Turkey
Is a local organic farm stiffing its workers?
White Egret Farm, on Webberville Road just outside city limits, is best known for its organic food products, especially goat's milk cheese and other natural dairy and meat products. However, the farm and its owner, Lee Dexter, also seem to be earning a reputation for stiffing their workers out of wages owed, in a pattern apparently stretching back quite a few years. Matters may come to a head next month in a felony theft-of-service charge brought against Dexter by Travis County on behalf of Florentino Andres, who says Dexter still owes him $475 for a week's work – five days, 12 hours a day – in the 2008 Thanksgiving rush, for which he was promised $8 an hour.
Last year, the Workers Defense Project intervened on Andres' behalf, sending a demand letter to Dexter and asking to resolve the matter by negotiation. That never happened, and the amount in dispute was sufficient to get Dexter popped on a felony charge, on which she is scheduled for trial in January (following several postponements, most recently last week). The WDP says that Dexter's failure to pay Andres is only one of many similar wage-theft disputes with White Egret, and a public records search suggests a decadelong pattern of related problems. Texas Workforce Commission records reflect 20 nonpayment claims against Dexter, stretching from 2001 to last year, although 14 have since been paid in full and four were dismissed. And in 2005, a group of 10 workers won a federal Fair Labor Standards Act judgment against Dexter and the farm in amounts ranging from $549 to $22,800 – $81,000 in all – and Bill Beardall of the Equal Justice Center, which represented the workers in that case, says that the judgment remains unpaid. Beardall says a subsequent mediation made no effective progress: "They still have a judgment; it's still pending; they're still attempting to collect the judgment."
Dexter's attorney, Bill Malone Jr., traced Dexter's financial difficulties to a strenuous battle with the Texas Department of Health stretching back to 1999, involving disputes over the sale of unpasteurized cheese and alleged regulatory harassment; Dexter's lawsuit against TDH was settled in 2004 (see "TDH Cuts the Egret's Cheese," Nov. 30, 2001), and she continues selling her products. "Sometimes when you take a body blow," said Malone, "it takes a while to get over it." Nevertheless, Malone insisted Dexter is not guilty of the wage-theft charge, adding that the farm depends heavily upon good relations with reliable employees. "It would be self-destructive to have a pattern of having workers out there and not paying. ... There are plenty of workers who have been paid in full and have not complained."
Beardall pointed out that it's not really in the interest of the workers to force Dexter out of business and that they have tried to work out some kind of accommodation. But he also noted: "There is a point at which, if a business requires cheating its workers in order to continue to operate – that that is essentially part of its business model – then it should not be in business, because it only continues to do more harm to more workers."