- Associated Press - Thursday, March 17, 2016

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) - A seafood company has agreed to pay a group of migrant workers back wages in a class action lawsuit.

A federal judge Wednesday ordered R&A; Oysters to pay 18 migrant workers more than $30,000 in back wages and attorney fees. The laborers were brought from Mexico on H-2B temporary work visas to shuck oysters at the company’s facility in Mobile County. The H-2B visas allow employers to temporarily hire foreign nonagricultural workers.

Attorneys for the Louisiana-based company and lawyers representing the workers agreed to a consent judgment to settle claims that laborers were paid less than the federal minimum wage during their first week of work. The Southern Poverty Law Center civil rights advocacy group represented the workers.

The laborers said in their complaint that the company failed to reimburse them for expenses they incurred before they began work and withheld money from their first paycheck to cover costs of tools and other gear, which caused their hourly pay to drop below $7.25.

“I think that it’s extremely meaningful for the workers and their families. They’re low wage workers who come to the United States to come and make a better life for themselves,” said Meredith Stewart, a staff attorney with the SPLC’s Immigrant Justice Project who is serving as lead attorney for the migrant workers.

The Montgomery, Alabama-based advocacy group is involved in similar lawsuits in Mississippi and South Carolina.

“Our experience tells us these programs are very abusive and the workers who come over are extremely vulnerable to wage theft and other forms of wage exploitation,” Stewart said.

Attorney Rick LaTrace represents R&A; Oysters and said the settlement on the Fair Labor Standards Act claim is a strategic move as the company has yet to resolve additional claims of retaliation and breach of contract. He said the company wasn’t looking to exploit the workers and none of them asked for reimbursement before the lawsuit was filed.

“We basically said ‘Look, take a judgment against us because we want to put that claim behind us and stop the clock on attorney fees and costs,” LaTrace said, later adding that his firm plans to vigorously defend the company against the remaining allegations.

The retaliation claim stems from R&A; rescinding offers to sponsor seven laborers’ work visas after the lawsuit was filed in October 2014, according to the complaint. The laborers also allege the company breached its contract with federal labor officials by failing to pay them the prevailing local wages for their work.

According to the Department of Labor, employers must obtain information on prevailing wages from the National Prevailing Wage Center and pay the highest of the prevailing wage, federal, state or local minimum wage. Federal guidelines also say migrant workers’ compensation must not include unauthorized deductions or kickbacks for employers.

Regulations governing compensation for H-2B visa workers weren’t as clear when the migrant workers involved in the lawsuit began working for R&A; Oysters, LaTrace said.

“Prior to the filing of this lawsuit, our position is there was a significant amount of inconsistency in the interpretation of the regulations and which regulations were applicable,” LaTrace said.

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