A group of foreign guestworkers lured from Mexico and Guatemala to plant pine trees for Eller and Sons Trees, Inc., one of the nation’s largest forestry contractors, were not paid the wages they had earned. The Southern Poverty Law Center sued the Franklin, Ga., company on behalf of the workers, winning an $11.8 million judgment in October 2012 – the largest court award on behalf of guestworkers at that time.
The class action lawsuit described violations of minimum wage and overtime protections, as well as other violations of the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act. The lawsuit’s class action status allowed the SPLC to litigate on behalf of 4,000 migrant workers legally admitted to the United States under the H-2B guestworker visa program.
The court found that Eller and Sons failed to reimburse their guestworkers for travel and visa expenses incurred when they came to the United States to work for the company, failed to provide them all the hours of work they were promised in their H-2B work contracts, and failed to maintain accurate records of the hours they worked.
The case resulted in precedent-setting decisions, including the court’s finding that the president of the company can be held personally liable – a finding that can prevent companies from simply declaring bankruptcy to avoid a judgment.
Other key findings by the court included:
- An employer cannot drive a worker’s pay below the minimum wage rate by requiring workers to pay expenses for things that primarily benefit the employer. The court found that the costs of passports, visas and other travel costs not only drove the workers’ pay below the protected rate level but resulted in workers having “negative incomes” in their first week of work.
- Guestworkers who are paid the prevailing H-2B wage rate for the area cannot have their pay driven below that rate by expenses such as passports, visas and other travel costs. This was the first time such a decision had been reached in a contested case.
- Guestworkers can enforce promises made by employers on H-2B visa applications – such as the total hours they will work per week. This shifts the balance of power by placing more power in the hands of guestworkers and deterring employers from abusing and mistreating workers in the future.