The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld in part a district court ruling that denied migrant workers’ claims that a Georgia onion farmer had improperly withheld the cost of housing and meals from their pay, reducing it below minimum wage. Ramos-Barrientos v. Bland, No. 10-13412 (11th Cir., decided October 27, 2011).

While the appeals court agreed with the lower court that the farmer could receive wage credits for meal reimbursements, it reversed the summary judgment that the farmer could receive wage credits for housing provided to the workers. The court also upheld the lower court’s determination that certain fees that third-party recruiters charged the workers in Mexico could not be recovered from the farmer who was unaware of them and had not agreed by contract to pay them.

The workers and the Secretary of Labor, as amicus, contended that the farmer was “not entitled to wage credits for the provision of free housing for the workers, which is required by federal law, 20 C.F.R. § 655.122(d)(1), because this cost primarily benefits the employer. See 29 C.F.R. § 531.3(d)(1).” Finding that the relevant rules had been in effect and interpreted consistently since 1967, the court agreed that the cost of housing provided to workers hired through the H-2A program was a mandatory business expense. According to the court, “The cost of housing for the workers near a job site far from their permanent residence did not arise ‘in the course of ordinary life,’ but instead was required by federal law as a condition of [the farmer’s] participation in the H-2A program and arose ‘from the employment itself.’”

The Secretary of Labor did not argue in support of the workers’ meal reimbursement claim, and the court found that the farmer could receive wage credits for the workers’ meals, stating “[u]nlike the cost of work site housing, the workers would have incurred expenses for food ‘in the course of ordinary life.’”