Farm Employees Can Sue Growers for Minimum Wage Violations
June Marks 50th Anniversary of Historic South Texas Farm Strike
This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the historic farm workers strike in South Texas, according to NPR. In the summer of 1966, organizers for the National Farm Workers’ Association (later the United Farm Workers) came to the Rio Grande Valley and organized a walkout that led workers on a 400 mile march to Austin, where they were led by labor activist Cesar Chavez, according to KUT. Growers broke the strike by bringing in pickers from Mexico. Modern labor activists are using the anniversary as an occasion to draw attention to the conditions of farm workers in South Texas. Since 2010, the United States Department of Labor has brought 650 cases against growers in the region for failing to pay their field hands minimum wage, and groups of farm workers have also brought lawsuits against growers on their own.
Jalapeño Pickers Sued Valley Grower for Minimum Wage Violations
Lawsuits by farm workers can pose a serious liability to agriculture businesses in the region. In 2010, a group of six jalapeño pickers sued the grower Bauer Farms for failure to pay minimum wage during the 2010-2011 harvest. In addition to not paying the minimum wage, the pickers argued that Bauer Farms had required their workers to purchase equipment such as work gloves and knives from their employer, which resulted in an even lower effective pay. Bauer Farms settled the lawsuit out of court about two years ago.
Minimum Wage Requirements for Farm Employees under the Fair Labor Standards Act
The Federal Fair Labor Standards Act sets the minimum wage for workers across the United States. The current minimum wage is $7.25, put in place in 2009. Although many states set a higher minimum wage, Texas does not. The Department of Labor enforces the federal minimum wage in all 50 states. Farmers who employ fewer than 500 “man days” of farm work are exempt from the federal minimum wage requirements. Farm workers who are immediate family members of the employer are also exempt from the minimum wage requirements; so are workers who are mostly involved in growing livestock on the range. Farm workers are exempt from overtime provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Other exemptions to the Fair Labor Standards Act apply to various aspects of farm work.
Employees alleging violations of their rights under the Fair Labor Standards Act have a private right of action under the law. This means that the federal government can enforce the law, or employees can sue their employer in court to get payment their employer owes them under the law. The Fair Labor Standards Act does not require employers to require employees to purchase uniforms or any other equipment that is primarily for the benefit of the employer.
Bauer Farms And The Federal Fair Labor Standards Act
Employers in the Rio Grande Valley have to be aware of possible liabilities under the Fair Labor Standards Act for their farm employees. In the Bauer Farms case, employees had a right to sue Bauer Farms if the employer failed to pay them their $7.25 hourly rate. There were six employees joined in the lawsuit and several other Bauer Farms farm employees who did not; the evidence apparently demonstrated that Bauer employed more than 500 man days of farm work in the 2010-11 season. If the requirements of the statute were met, Bauer would be liable for back pay under the FLSA.
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