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H-2A farm workers' errands not covered by OT exemption - 11th Circuit

4 minute read

A Mexican migrant worker picks blueberries during a harvest at a farm in Lake Wales, Florida, U.S., March 31, 2020. REUTERS/Marco Bello

  • Transportation work did not take place 'on a farm
  • H-2A requirements have no impact on overtime exemption

(Reuters) - A U.S. appeals court has ruled that a Florida fruit-harvesting company should have paid its supervisors overtime for the several hours each week they spent transporting H-2A visa workers to the grocery store, laundromat and bank.

Hours after hearing oral arguments in the case, an 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel on Friday said the errands did not qualify as agricultural work exempt from overtime under the Fair Labor Standards Act, because they were not directly connected to Statewide Harvesting & Hauling LLC's agricultural operations.

The three-judge panel rejected Statewide's claim that because the H-2A visa program required it to offer transportation to field workers, the supervisors' driving was indispensable to the company's agricultural work.

"This type of transportation is not bound up with an on-the-farm activity like feeding workers on a farm, and it is a few steps removed from harvesting (and) wholly divorced from physical contact with a farm," Circuit Judge William Pryor wrote.

Lawyers at Allen Norton & Blue who represent Dundee, Florida-based Statewide did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Neither did Edward Rosenberg of Sorondo Rosenberg Legal, who represents the plaintiffs.

Statewide harvests fruit from about 1,500 fields for multiple farmers in Florida and hauls it to processing plants. The company mostly employs temporary foreign guest workers through the H-2A visa program, which requires that workers be provided with housing and access to cooking and laundry facilities.

The plaintiffs, Jose Ramirez and Joel Santana, were field supervisors for Statewide and spent about four hours each week taking workers on errands, according to filings in the case.

They sued Statewide in 2017, claiming they were deprived of overtime pay for the time they spent transporting field workers in violation of the FLSA.

The law contains an exemption from overtime pay requirements for agricultural work, which it defines as "farming in all its branches" or "any practices performed by a farmer or on a farm as an incident to or in conjunction with farming operations."

Statewide moved for summary judgment, claiming the exemption applied to the supervisors' transportation work because it connected to their primary agricultural tasks.

A federal magistrate judge in Tampa agreed, but U.S. District Judge Mary Scriven in 2019 rejected the magistrate's recommendations and granted summary judgment to the plaintiffs. Scriven said the transportation duties were not performed "by a farmer or on a farm," and so were not covered by the exemption.

Statewide appealed, arguing that the transportation was directly related to agricultural work, evidenced by the fact that the H-2A program required it.

The 11th Circuit on Friday sided with the plaintiffs. The driving trips did not occur on a farm or directly enable harvesting and other agricultural work, Pryor wrote for the court.

"Extending the secondary definition of 'agriculture' any further would empty the 'on a farm' requirement of any meaning," he wrote.

The panel included Circuit Judge Robert Luck and U.S. District Judge Emily Marks of the Middle District of Alabama, who sat by designation.

The case is Ramirez v. Statewide Harvesting and Hauling LLC, 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 20-11995.

For the plaintiffs: Edward Rosenberg of Sorondo Rosenberg Legal

For Statewide: Matthew Stefany of Allen Norton & Blue

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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