Mexican and Guatemalan laborers probably won’t see any of the back pay they’re owed by a Franklin-based forestry contractor.
A federal Judge in Atlanta this week ordered Eller and Sons Trees, Inc. to pay $11.8 million to the guest workers, but neither side thinks that will happen.
The company folded three years ago, and the plaintiff’s attorney Jim Knoepp of the Southern Poverty Law Center says that’s no accident. "This is the largest forestry contractor in the United States, and rather than bring itself into compliance and operate legally it has decided to just close its doors," Knoepp said.
The award would have amounted to about $3,000 for each laborer, all of whom came here legally to work for Eller and Sons on pine reforestation jobs in Southeast Georgia. The judge ruled the company effectively paid the workers less than minimum wage by requiring them to cover their own travel and visa expenses.
Company owner Jerry Eller has also gone bankrupt. His attorney Larry Stein says an agreement was reached with the plaintiffs.
"Jerry Eller would let this judgment be entered and would not appeal it, but unless Mr. Eller makes a good bit of money, which he’s not been making in the last couple years, Southern Poverty would agree to forebear any collection actions for the duration of his life," Stein said.
Eller now lives on a farm in Montana he owns with his wife.