The United States District Court for the Western District of Michigan recently addressed the legal obligations of farmers who use seasonal migrant workers to harvest their crops. In Perez v. Howes LLC the Honorable Gordon J. Quist joined the vast majority of federal judges who have concluded that migrant workers are employees subject to the Fair Labor Standards Act ("FLSA").
The court found that the provision in the contracts between the farmer and the migrant workers attempting to define the migrant workers as independent contractors did not control whether the migrant workers were employees under the FLSA. The court concluded that, given the degree of control the farmer exercised over the migrant workers' labor, the migrant workers were properly classified as employees under the FLSA.
This has a number of significant implications for farmers who employ migrant workers. For example, the FLSA requires employers to (1) pay minimum wage; (2) pay overtime for time worked over 40 hours in a week; (3) keep records documenting the hours that each employee works; and (4) restricts the use of child labor. The recordkeeping requirement in particular can be challenging for farmers who employ migrant workers, but is a statutory requirement that cannot be avoided.
The district court in Howes also found that the defendant violated the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act ("MSPA") in two ways. First, the district court found that because an employee of the farmer was given responsibility for repairing housing units offered to the migrant workers, the farmer was required to ensure that the housing complied with applicable health and safety standards. The fact that the housing units were not actually owned by the farmer did not relieve the farmer of this responsibility.
The district court also concluded that the farmer improperly interfered with attempts by federal Wage and Hour Inspectors ("WHI") to interview migrant workers concerning the conditions of their employment. The MSPA provides that an individual may not "unlawfully resist, oppose, impede, intimidate, or interfere with any official . . . assigned to perform an investigation." In this case, the court found that the farmer unlawfully interfered with the WHI interviews by not allowing the WHIs to interview the migrant workers privately.