Shows Underpaying Or Violating Other Rules For Employing Foreign Workers Risky Business
Underpaying and failing to meet other H-2A visa program requirements for its employment of temporary foreign agricultural workers was an extremely costly mistake for Yerington, Nevada-based onion grower Peri & Sons.
Under a consent order entered by U.S. Department of Labor Administrative Law Judge Steven Berlin in San Francisco, Peri & Sons must pay a record total of $2,338,700 in back wages to 1,365 workers, plus a $500,000 civil money penalty to the Department of Labor for failing to properly pay foreign agricultural workers working under the H-2A visa program.
The consent order announced by the Labor Department Wage and Hour Division on July 10, 2012 reminds U.S. businesses of the need to meet compliance responsibilities when employing foreign workers and illustrates the significant risks that employers of foreign workers risk by failing to meet minimum wage and hour, overtime and other requirements for the employment of foreign workers.
The record back pay order stems from charges brought by the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division after it determined that Peri & Sons violated the Fair Labor Standards Act and the H-2A visa program requirements by underpaying H-2A employees involved in irrigation, harvesting, packing and shipping of onions sold in grocery stores nationwide.
All of the affected workers came to the U.S. from Mexico under the H-2A temporary agricultural worker visa program. In most cases, their earnings fell below the hourly wage required by the program, as well as below the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour for a brief period of time. Investigators also found that workers were not paid for time spent in mandatory pesticide training or reimbursed for subsistence expenses while traveling to and from the U.S. Additionally, Peri & Sons did not pay the worker’s return transportation costs at the end of the contract period.
The H-2A temporary agricultural worker program permits agricultural employers who expect a shortage of domestic workers to bring nonimmigrant foreign workers to the United States to perform temporary or seasonal agricultural work. The employer must file an application stating that a sufficient number of domestic workers are not available and the employment of these workers will not adversely affect the wages and working conditions of similarly employed workers in the U.S.
Employers using the H-2A program also must meet a number of specific conditions relating to recruitment, wages, housing, meals and transportation. See more on H-2A visa employment rules here.
Reflective of the Obama Administration’s heavy emphasis on the enforcement of wage and hour and other laws protective of workers, the Peri & Sons order shows the potential risks that employers run when violating these rules.
To minimize these exposures, employers of H-2A or other workers employed under special visa programs should carefully manage these programs to ensure their ability to demonstrate compliance with all requirements of the visa program, the Fair Labor Standards Act, and other relevant laws.
These programs should include careful and ongoing due diligence to maintain a current understanding of all applicable requirements for the legal employment of these workers and the establishment of systemized processes and documentation, both to maintain compliance and to preserve evidence necessary to demonstrate this compliance against possible investigations or charges.