Federal Court Sentences Eastern Kentucky Landscape Owner After U.S. Department of Labor Investigation
FLATWOODS, KY – After an investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division (WHD), the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky has sentenced Michael Anthony Wheeler – owner of Tri-State Lawn Care Inc. operating in Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia – to serve five years on unsupervised probation and ordered him to pay $327,087 in back wages to 17 employees for violating requirements of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and the H-2A visa program.
WHD investigators determined that Wheeler falsified his H-2A application when he misrepresented the type of work the employees would perform. The documents certified by Wheeler represented that the foreign workers would be engaged in agricultural work, but Wheeler instead knowingly hired them to perform non-agricultural work such as lawn care and construction work. Wheeler also charged workers fees for airfare to and from their home country and charged fees for housing and transportation to and from their assigned daily job assignments, which the visa program prohibits. Wheeler also failed to pay the prevailing wage, and overtime when they worked over 40 hours in a workweek, an FLSA requirement.
In April 2019, the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of Kentucky charged Wheeler with criminal violations in connection with making false statements on his application and violating the FLSA. Tri-State Lawn Care and Wheeler pleaded guilty to willful violations of the FLSA's overtime requirement and eight counts of making false statements on his H-2A applications. In addition to paying the back wages, Tri-State and Wheeler agreed to a 10-year H-2A debarment, five years of third party monitoring, and $125,000 in fines and forfeitures.
"This case sends a strong message about the U.S. Department of Labor's commitment to safeguard American jobs, level the playing field for law-abiding employers, and ensure that guest workers are paid the wages they have earned," said Wage and Hour Regional Administrator Juan Coria, in Atlanta, Georgia. "Employers seeking non-immigrant guest workers must abide by all of the program's requirements, to include not placing employees in occupations outside of those listed in their employment certifications where they could displace American workers. We encourage employers to contact the Wage and Hour Division by phone, online, or to attend any of our outreach events for assistance and to learn more about their responsibilities."
WHD, the Department's Office of Inspector General, and its Solicitor worked with other federal law enforcement agencies and the Kentucky State Police in the investigation. The U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of Kentucky prosecuted the case.
For more information about the FLSA, H-2A, and other laws enforced by the Wage and Hour Division, contact the toll-free helpline at 866-4US-WAGE (487-9243). Employers who discover overtime or minimum wage violations may self-report and resolve those violations without litigation through the PAID program. Information is also available at https://www.dol.gov/whd.
WHD's mission is to promote and achieve compliance with labor standards to protect and enhance the welfare of the Nation's workforce. WHD enforces federal minimum wage, overtime pay, recordkeeping, and child labor requirements of the FLSA. WHD also enforces the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act, the Employee Polygraph Protection Act, the Family and Medical Leave Act, wage garnishment provisions of the Consumer Credit Protection Act, and a number of employment standards and worker protections as provided in several immigration related statutes. Additionally, WHD administers and enforces the prevailing wage requirements of the Davis Bacon Act and the Service Contract Act and other statutes applicable to federal contracts for construction and for the provision of goods and services.
The mission of the Department of Labor is to foster, promote, and develop the welfare of the wage earners, job seekers, and retirees of the United States; improve working conditions; advance opportunities for profitable employment; and assure work-related benefits and rights.