By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI

Capital Press

A major fruit grower violated Oregon's minimum wage law by deducting the cost of housing from farm workers' paychecks, according to a federal appeals court.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has reversed the opinion of a federal judge who last year found that Bear Creek Orchards of Medford, Ore., was allowed to make such deductions.

Bear Creek is the fruit-growing division of the Harry & David gift basket company, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in March.

The 9th Circuit has ruled that Bear Creek can't deduct housing costs from workers' minimum wage paychecks because it "would not have been able to maintain its workforce in the absence of on-site housing."

Oregon law allows companies to subtract housing costs from workers' minimum wages only if the housing is provided for the private benefit of the employee.

One of the exceptions to this rule is if the employer must provide housing to have enough workers at the times and locations that they're needed.

In 2010, U.S. District Judge Owen Panner found that this exception only applied to on-call workers, not to seasonal agricultural workers. The 9th Circuit has ruled this interpretation to be erroneously narrow.

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