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Archie Ingersoll / Forum Communications Co., Published January 13 2011

South African brothers sue North Dakota harvesting outfit

Two South African brothers allege that a custom-harvesting operation in Minto, N.D., owes unpaid wages to them and dozens of other foreign employees.

Peter and Andrew Murray have filed a federal lawsuit against Altendorf Harvesting. Both sides are set to discuss the case today during a scheduling conference.

Altendorf’s attorney, Robert Stock, said his client denies the allegations and believes it has paid the necessary wages.

“Altendorf has always treated its foreign work force with dignity and respect and will continue to do so in the future,” Stock said.

The Murray brothers, who are in their 20s, came to the U.S. on visas in the summer of 2008 to work for Altendorf, a company owned by Janice Altendorf that hires crews to harvest farmers’ crops.

The Murrays’ suit says they were contracted to work 48 hours per week at a rate of $9.55 per hour, but in reality, they were required to work 80 to 90 hours per week at a lower rate. The suit accuses Altendorf of breaking the contract and violating federal and state wage laws.

The Murrays’ attorney, Mac Schneider, said the brothers want to be paid the wages owed to them, but that an exact figure can’t be determined until the company discloses certain documents.

Schneider and the Murrays aim to have the suit designated as a class action that would apply to Altendorf’s employees from the past three years — a group that would include dozens of foreign nationals who ran combines, operated grain carts, drove trucks and fixed equipment.

In the custom-harvesting business, it’s not unusual for owners to hire foreigners who obtain visas to work the harvest and then return home.

Schneider said the Murrays, who are in South Africa, regularly come to the U.S. to work as custom harvesters. They spent only one harvest with Altendorf and were employed by a different outfit this past summer, he said.

Ingersoll is a reporter at the Grand Forks Herald