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Court Narrows Overtime Exemption for Agriculture

April 9, 2019
A recent ruling by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) addressed a legal dispute over whether the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) or the Massachusetts minimum wage and overtime law should apply to work done in a food-processing facility.
Agricultural work - growing and harvesting - is exempt from overtime requirements under both laws. But this case turned on whether the law covered “secondary agricultural work” or “post harvesting activities.” Many employers had assumed over the years that these categories fell under agriculture. Not so.
This case began when 15 current and former employees sued their food industry employer claiming that they had worked up to 70 hours per week and were not paid overtime after 40 hours. The lawsuit alleged that the employer violated the Massachusetts minimum wage and overtime laws.
The employer responded that the workers were not entitled to overtime because their work was covered by one of the exceptions to the law, specifically exception 19 - “laborer(s) engaged in agriculture and farming on a farm.”
The employees claimed they were not doing direct agricultural work but cleaning, inspecting, sorting, weighing and packaging the food after it was harvested. They also cleaned the facility and discarded waste.
The employer claimed that that state should follow the broader federal definition of agriculture work to cover post-harvesting activities. 
The SJC rejected the employer’s argument and ruled that the statutory definition for agricultural and farm work in the overtime statute refers to ‘growing and harvesting’ commodities but not to post- harvesting activities. The court ruled that if an employee is not planting, harvesting or cultivating, the employee is not engaged in farm work.
The SJC reviewed the legislative history of this exception to determine whether it could be distinguished from the FLSA. The answer was yes.
The court found that as the Massachusetts law developed, the Legislature recognized an implicit tradeoff between actual and secondary agricultural work. The Legislature recognized that farm workers should be paid the minimum wage for their work, employers (growers) concerned about “the time-sensitive nature of growing and harvesting perishable fruits and vegetables” would not have to pay overtime to their agricultural workers during critical periods in the farming cycle. In recognizing that exception exists, the SJC ruled that agricultural work should be defined narrowly to not include post-harvesting activities. 
The case has direct impact on employers in the agricultural industry, but it may also impact other employers who believe they do not to have to pay overtime based on federal law or a presumed reading of an exception to the law. Any employer relying on one or more of these exceptions to not pay minimum wage may want to go back and reread the law and consult with outside counsel to make sure the company is on defensible legal ground. 
AIM members may learn more about this and other HR-related issues by calling the Employer Hotline at 800-470-6277. 
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