Court Orders Georgia Onion Producer to Pay Workers More Than $1.4 Million in Back Wages and Damages
ATLANTA, GA – A U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Georgia has ordered Bland Farms Production and Packing LLC – an onion producer in Vidalia – to pay $1,480,268 in back wages and liquidated damages after the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division found the employer violated the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).
Bland failed to pay overtime to approximately 460 employees over the span of six years, the Division determined. Under the FLSA, employers must pay workers time-and-a-half when they exceed 40 hours in a work week. The overtime rule exempts company workers involved in primary agriculture, the act of growing product; or secondary agriculture, the act of processing, and packaging the product grown by that company.
Bland violated that rule when it failed to pay overtime wages to packing-shed employees involved in the processing and packaging of onions grown by other farmers who were contracted with the company to grow onions for sale to Bland. The contract farmers planted and grew the onions only to be packed and sold by Bland.
“This decision recovers back wages for hundreds of workers in an industry where these violations are all too common,” said Southeast Regional Administrator for the Wage and Hour Division, Wayne Kotowski. “We are committed to enforcement and educational efforts to ensure that workers know their rights and employers know their responsibilities.”
The Department and the court rejected Bland’s contention that the advice the company provided to the contract farmers was sufficient to make Bland a farmer of the onions grown by those farmers. The Department and the court determined that because Bland was not the farmer of the onions grown by the contract farmers, processing and packaging those onions was not incidental to Bland’s farming operations. As such, the agricultural exemption from the FLSA’s overtime requirements did not apply to the packing-shed employees when they processed onions not grown on Bland property.
The court also found that Bland did not act in good faith in continuing to fail to pay overtime after the Department filed its complaint and awarded over $500,000 in liquidated damages to workers from the time of the lawsuit in 2014 to the present.
“This case makes it clear to agricultural producers like Bland that if you’re not growing the produce, the agricultural exemption from overtime does not apply,” said Regional Solicitor Stanley Keen. “A decision like this one levels the playing field for other large producers who pay their packing house employees as the law requires.”
For more information about the FLSA and other laws enforced by the Wage and Hour Division, contact the Division’s toll-free helpline at 866-4US-WAGE (487-9243). Information is also available at http://www.dol.gov/whd.