Doubled Up: Federal Court Rules Employer Is Joint Employer of H-2A Workers

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06/27/2017

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Doubled Up: Federal Court Rules Employer Is Joint Employer of H-2A Workers

 By:Gregory Blueford

Last week, a Florida citrus grower was found to be a joint employer of its hired farm labor contractor’s H-2A employees (“Plaintiffs”) after a federal judge determined the grower extensively controlled the manner and means by which the harvesters accomplished their work.

In Garcia-Celestino v. Ruiz Harvesting, Inc., et al., Consolidated Citrus LP (“Consolidated Citrus”) hired Ruiz Harvesting, Inc. (“RHI”) to recruit and hire H-2A workers from Mexico to harvest oranges. Plaintiffs sued both Consolidated Citrus and RHI for unpaid wages under the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Protection Act (“MSPA”), and Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), common law breach of contract and state violations of minimum wage law. RHI was later dismissed after settling their claims separately with Plaintiffs.

The central issue to be decided was whether Consolidated Citrus was a joint employer for the purposes of the breach of contract claims. Plaintiffs alleged that they were not paid correctly under their H-2A work contract. Because Consolidated Citrus was not the holder of the H-2A contract, Plaintiffs had to prove that Consolidated Citrus was a joint employer.

Generally speaking, the joint employment test under the federal common law, which applies to H-2A workers, focuses on the alleged employer’s right to control the manner and means by which the alleged employee accomplishes their work. The court will analyze several factors, including, but not limited to, the source of the equipment needed, the location of the work, the extent of the hired party’s discretion over when and how long to work, and the method of payment. These are just a few factors and the Court will take a look at the entire situation to make a joint employer determination.

Here, Consolidated Citrus would direct RHI to bring a crew of workers in to harvest and would tell RHI how much fruit should be harvested from a particular grove when it was determined by Consolidated Citrus that the fruit was ready. In addition, Consolidated Citrus issued ID badges to all RHI harvesters for the harvesters to clock in and out of a time-tracking device owned and operated by Consolidated Citrus. Consolidated Citrus also conducted random audits of RHI’s recordkeeping. A Consolidated Citrus manager would visit RHI’s third-party payroll provider’s office and spot check employment records, including verifying payroll to ensure that the hours worked matched the timekeeping equipment. In addition, Consolidated Citrus directed RHI to pay its employees by direct deposit during the 2008 – 2009 season.

Further, when a citrus disease broke out during the harvesting season, Consolidated Citrus implemented and supervised procedures designed to prevent the harvest workers from spreading the disease from grove to grove. Also, if Consolidated Citrus supervisors noticed any issues during harvest, such as fruit left on trees or garbage in the fields, they would alert RHI supervisors. Although unclear if it was ever utilized, Consolidated Citrus also reserved the right to stop RHI’s harvesters if Consolidated Citrus personnel determined that something was wrong with the harvesting process. Further, Consolidated Citrus agreed to pay RHI a rate that was determined based on the weight of the fruit harvested by the H-2A workers. The rate could vary based upon the particular grove that was being harvested but Consolidated Citrus had final say on the wage rate.

RHI, who held the actual H-2A labor contract, recruited workers, arranged for all travel for the harvesters, including to and from the job site, provided housing and all tools and equipment for the H-2A employees.

Looking at the whole picture, the Federal Court ruled that Consolidated Citrus was a joint employer of Plaintiffs. Although the Court noted that the provision of tools, housing, and transportation by RHI weighed solidly in Consolidated Citrus’ favor, the Court stated “the principal guidepost” in determining whether Consolidated Citrus was a joint employer is the extent of control they exercised over the employees. Here, the Court placed great weight on Consolidated Citrus’: supervision of the harvesters’ work, retained right to stop work for any reason, ability to determine the number of workers needed, control of the timekeeping, management of the citrus disease prevention measures, and the location of the work, which took place on Consolidated Citrus’ land. In addition, the Court noted while RHI the primary controller of the payment method, Consolidated Citrus still exercised some control over the workers by auditing RHI’s payroll procedures, providing summaries of the workers’ hours to RHI and directing RHI to pay workers by direct deposit. Taking all of these facts together, the Court determined these factors weighed in favor of finding that Consolidated Citrus was a joint employer based on the common law test that applies to H-2A workers.

COUNSEL TO MANAGEMENT:

Joint employer is a complicated legal theory that, increasingly, companies can get caught in a joint employer situation due to their lack of understanding the Joint Employer factors and their failure to maintain a “disciplined firewall” between themselves and the H-2A Labor Contractor (“H-2ALC”). As demonstrated by the factors analyzed by the Court here, prudent business practices, such as making sure H-2ALC employees are paid correctly, or basic contractual givens, such as setting a rate structure and directing the work to be performed on the company’s own property, can lend the Court to rule that employers are actually joint employers of the hired FLC, H-2ALC or vineyard management company employees. If you have any questions regarding joint employment and its potential impact on your business, contact The Saqui Law Group.

 

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