Two lawsuits filed against Bellingham seafood company

Three Skagit County clam diggers filed a wage theft lawsuit against Bellingham-based Trans Ocean Seafoods in Skagit County Superior Court on Thursday, Oct. 22.  The lawsuit is the second filed against the company this fall.

The lawsuit alleges that over a period of three years, Trans Ocean Seafoods failed to pay the three employees minimum wage, overtime pay, rest-break pay and for all the hours they worked.

Trans Ocean Seafoods is not affiliated with Trans-Ocean Products, a Bellingham seafood processor with a corporate office at 350 W. Orchard Drive.

Trans Ocean Seafoods also does business as New England Shellfish, and harvests clams in South Skagit Bay, according to its registration with the state Department of Health. The company has a processing plant in Mount Vernon and the address on employees pay stubs is in Bellingham, said Andrea Schmitt an attorney for Columbia Legal Services representing the workers. Columbia Legal Services is a legal advocacy group with a mission to fight poverty and injustice.

The workers alleged that Trans Ocean Seafoods never paid overtime, even though they often worked 60 hours or more per week. Employers are exempt from compensating agricultural workers with overtime pay, but clam diggers aren’t considered agricultural workers, Schmitt said.

The company also required workers to load and unload the boats that transported them to the clam beds without pay while they were paid piecemeal for the clams they harvested, the lawsuit alleged.

The workers are asking the court to award them the wages they say they didn’t receive and to order Trans Ocean Seafoods to change its pay practices in the future, according to a prepared statement from Columbia Legal Services.

The complaint filed in court doesn’t say how much the workers are owed.

“It’s going to be some tens of thousands of dollars, but it’s hard to tell until we get some specific numbers from the company,” Schmitt said.

Low tide dictates clam diggers work schedules, so the time they work changes from day to day.

“It’s not like having a night shift, it’s perpetually rotating,” Schmitt said. “In a lot of ways this is one of the tougher jobs I’ve run across as a legal services lawyer who represents people who do really tough jobs.”

In a separate lawsuit, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued Trans Ocean Seafoods in U.S. District Court in Seattle on Sept. 30 over sexual harassment concerns.

That lawsuit alleges the company violated federal civil rights law by not responding to complaints that a supervisor made unwanted and sometimes threatening sexual comments to four employees on multiple occasions in 2012 and 2013, and that supervisors retaliated against three of the victims and a male employee who tried to help.

One worker resigned at the end of 2012 because of her supervisor’s increasing sexual harassment and efforts to isolate her from her coworkers, the lawsuit charges.

All four of the workers were Latina, one was 17 years old, and two were particularly vulnerable because they don’t read or write and can only speak Mixtec—a native Central American language—said Nancy Sineko, Seattle field director for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, in a prepared statement.

“Those are just allegations,” said Ken Diamond, a lawyer representing Trans Ocean Seafoods. “I don’t think it’s appropriate to comment beyond that.”

Correction: The original version of this article misspelled Andrea Schmitt’s name. It has been corrected.

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