Gulf Coast seafood company R&A Oysters failed to properly pay guest workers it recruited to the United States on temporary H-2B work visas.
The Southern Poverty Law Center filed a federal lawsuit in 2014 on behalf of a group of migrant workers the company hired to shuck and process oysters. These workers left their homes and families in Mexico to come to the United States with the guarantee they would not be paid less than the federal minimum wage and the prevailing wage mandated by the H-2B visa program for their work.
A confidential settlement agreement, which included monetary and nonmonetary elements, including protections for whistleblowers, was reached in December 2016. The agreement was a victory for a class of more than 50 guest workers. It came after the judge ordered the company in March to pay $30,000 in back wages to 18 guest workers who were paid below the minimum wage.
The lawsuit describes how even before the workers arrived at their jobs, they incurred expenses – such as the costs for guest worker visas and transportation from Mexico – that were never reimbursed by the company, as required by law. Workers were also required to pay for their own equipment including oyster knives, overalls, gloves and boots.
As a result of the travel costs and the various fees, the guest workers’ wages fell below the minimum pay required by the Fair Labor Standards Act and below the mandatory wage for H-2B guest workers set by the federal government. The company’s payment practices also breached the workers’ employment contracts with the company to pay the prevailing wage for their work.
After the lawsuit was filed, R&A Oysters fired several workers involved in the case. In response, the SPLC added retaliation claims to the lawsuit. The SPLC also won a protective order after the employer threatened workers’ future employment if they participated in the lawsuit. The order required the company to notify workers that they could participate in the lawsuit without fear of retribution.