Advocates for guest workers yesterday praised a Philadelphia federal judge's decision that they said will help alleviate some problems in the nation's guest-worker program.
On Monday, U.S. District Judge Louis H. Pollak said that the Brickman Group Ltd., a landscaping company, must reimburse temporary seasonal foreign workers for visa costs, labor broker fees, and transportation expenses from their countries to the workplace.
"I think this is an incredibly important case," said Mary Bauer, director of the immigrant justice project for the Southern Poverty Law Center, a Montgomery, Ala.-based organization that advocates for migrant and guest workers.
"For guest workers, the cost of getting the job can exceed the value of the job," she said.
The case, which involves 100 workers in Pennsylvania, was filed in federal court in 2005 against the Brickman Group, a national landscaping firm based in Maryland. Alan Berkowitz, the company's attorney and a partner at Dechert L.L.P., declined to comment.
The total amount owed is uncertain, but could include damages.
Workers from Mexico and Guatemala were brought in under the federal government's H-2B program, which allows companies to hire foreign temporary workers during their busy seasons, provided they pay them the prevailing U.S. wage.
Brickman generally paid proper wages, but after it deducted visa fees, transportation costs, and fees for labor brokers in the foreign countries - anywhere from $450 to $1,000 per worker - the workers ended up earning less than minimum wage in their first week's pay.
U.S. law allows deductions for those expenses, but only in the first week and only to the extent that they don't push wages below the minimum wage.
If deductions for fees do push wages below the minimum, and if the fees primarily are for the company's benefit, the company must make up the difference, the judge ruled.
Brickman had argued that employers should cover only expenses integral to the work, such as buying tools. Landscaping trade groups had filed friend-of-the-court briefs supporting Brickman's position.
Filing the case on behalf of the workers was Arthur N. Read, general counsel of Friends of Farmworkers Inc., an advocacy group based in Philadelphia.
Read said the case covered 2003 to 2005.
He said the case was important because some guest workers arrive and find the job is not what was promised. Or, as in the case of the lead plaintiff, they may get injured. But they can't return home or stop working because they owe money for fees and transportation.
Michael Glau, president of IPR International Personnel Resources Inc., a guest-worker labor broker in West Chester with offices in Mexico City, said many companies already voluntarily pay those fees, and he would encourage employers to follow the case's guidance as an industry best practice.
"The employer will have to understand that this is a cost of the program," he said, "and the employer will have to decide whether it is still worthwhile."
Legal Mexican workers with temporary visas won't be back at Delaware Park for this year's race season.