Migrant Farm Workers and the Fair Labor Standards Act

Migrant workers and the FLSA
Migrant workers and the FLSA

For purposes of the Fair Labor Standards Act, migrant farm workers can be joint employees of the farm where they work and the company which supplies their services to the farm.  See Garcia-Celestino v. Ruiz Harvesting, Inc., No. 16-10790, 2016 WL 7240150 (11th Cir. Dec. 15, 2016).  The issue of joint employment is raising its head frequently as companies try to limit their liability to the people providing services to them.  As I previously discussed, the issue is frequently whether an employer possesses control over the worker: MY ACHING “JOINTS” – JOINT EMPLOYEES UNDER THE FLSA

In Garcia-Celestino, Basiliso Ruiz provided migrant workers to pick oranges for Consolidated Citrus.  Consolidated paid based upon the number boxes of fruit picked by each worker.  If the worker did not pick enough boxes of fruit to achieve minimum wage, Consolidated Fruit paid additional “build-up pay” to raise the worker to minimum wage.  Unfortunately, Mr. Ruiz then deprived the migrant workers of minimum wage by requiring them to hand-over the “build-up pay” to him under threat of deportation.  Ultimately, the migrant workers sued both Mr. Ruiz and Consolidated Citrus for failure to pay minimum wage under the FLSA.

The primary issue in Garcia-Celestino was whether the migrant workers were joint employees of Consolidated Citrus for purposes of breach of contract and FLSA claims.  The trial court found that Consolidated Citrus was a joint employer for both claims, and relied upon the FLSA’s “suffer or permit to work” standard of “employer” to reach that conclusion.  Under that definition, the ultimate question is whether, as a matter of “economic reality,” the hired individual is “economically dependent” upon the hiring entity.

The Eleventh Circuit found that the trial court incorrectly applied the “suffer or permit to work” standard to the migrant workers’ breach of contract claims.  As a result, the Eleventh Circuit remanded the case for the trial court to determine whether the migrant workers were Consolidated Citrus’s employees under the common-law standard — which focuses mostly on control.  Nevertheless, for purposes of the FLSA minimum wage claims, the Eleventh Circuit found that the trial court correctly applied the “suffer or permit to work” standard, and concluded that Consolidated Citrus was a joint employer for purposes of the minimum wage claims.

Garcia-Celestino provides a cautionary tale for all employers — not just farmers.  If you are contracting-out labor, you run the risk of liability as a joint employer of the contract laborers.