A federal district court in Georgia has ordered a forestry company to pay $11.8 million to 4,000 guest workers who were cheated out of their wages while employed for the company. This is the highest reported award to guestworkers in history.
According to the lawsuit, in 2005, seasonal migrant workers were lured from Mexico and Guatemala to plant pine seedlings as part of the federal H-2B program and were not paid their promised wages. The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia found that Eller and Sons had violated the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act (AWPA) multiple times. The class action lawsuit described violations including: minimum wage violation, overtime protections, and other violations of AWPA.
By ruling in favor of the guestworkers, “the court sent a strong and clear message in this case that businesses employing guestworkers will be held accountable if they abuse or mistreat them,” said Jim Knoepp, senior supervising attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center, which brought the suit. “Employers are now on notice that exploiting these workers will prove devastatingly costly.” The court found that Eller and Sons, the forestry company charged in the case, did not reimburse their guestworkers for travel and visa expenses when they came to the U.S. They also failed to provide them with the hours of work that the H-2B work contracts. Finally, they failed to maintain accurate records of the hours that they did work.
A worker for Eller and Sons said he was always underpaid. “Our pay would come out to approximately $25 for a 12-hour workday,” he said. “At the end of the season, I had only saved $500 to send home to my family.”
This lawsuit demonstrates an unfortunate flaw in the guestworker program, since Eller and Sons have already been investigated numerous times by the U.S. Department of Labor and fined for violating several employment regulations. Despite their repeated failures to comply with regulations, the company still received approval to hire H-2B workers.
The Court also ruled on important findings which are as follows:
(1) An employer cannot require workers to pay expenses that primarily benefit the employer therefore driving a worker’s pay below minimum wage.
(2) Guestworkers who are paid the H-2B wage rate for the area cannot have their pay driven down by expenses for passports, visas, and other travel costs
(3) Guestworkers can enforce promises made by employers on H-2B visa applications.
If you have questions regarding hiring seasonal workers or obtaining an employment visa yourself, please contact us at 314-961-8200 or visit our contact page.