Orchardist legally deducted meals and housing from paychecks


Capital Press

A large Oregon orchard company did not break minimum wage laws by deducting money for food and housing from seasonal workers' paychecks, according to a federal judge.

Bear Creek Orchards, the fruit-growing arm of the Harry & David gift basket company, was legally allowed to charge employees daily fees for the services, U.S. District Judge Owen Panner ruled on Oct. 21.

The 12 plaintiffs who filed the class-action case against Bear Creek Orchards claimed the company did not meet the legal criteria to make such deductions.

The loss in pay caused seasonal workers' wages to fall below Oregon's minimum wage during several years between 2004 and 2006, the plaintiffs claimed.

Panner found those allegations to be unsubstantiated.

The company charged a fixed daily rate for providing breakfast, lunch and dinner, but it was not required to make sure the workers actually ate each meal every day, he said in the legal opinion.

The daily charge of $5 to $7, depending on the year, also covered housing.

Oregon regulations permit companies to make such deductions as long as workers are not required to travel or to accept lodging as a condition of employment.

Companies also cannot deduct money if the lodging is "necessary in order for the employer to maintain an adequate work force at the times and locations the employer needs them," according to Oregon regulations.

However, that provision only applies to "on call" employees, not seasonal harvest workers, Panner said.

The plaintiffs did travel from San Luis, Ariz., to Medford, Ore., to harvest pears and peaches, but that does not qualify as traveling on an employer's business, he said.

The judge also rejected the plaintiffs' claims that the company took other unauthorized deductions from their paychecks.

Although Bear Creek Orchards prevailed on minimum wage issues, Panner found the firm did violate some regulations.

While recruiting workers in Arizona in 2005 and 2006, a representative of the company did not provide applicants with written disclosures about wage rates and working conditions, as required by law, the judge said.

As part of the ruling, the company must pay $75 in damages for each worker who did not receive such a disclosure upon recruitment.

The company employed between 250 and 350 seasonal workers during each harvest season, but the ruling didn't specify how many were recruited without receiving such disclosures.

The judge also awarded two individual plaintiffs $35 each for groceries lost as the result of a septic tank backup, as well one day's wages to four individual plaintiffs who received their paychecks late.

Staff writer Mateusz Perkowski is based in Salem, Ore. E-mail: mperkowski@capitalpress.com .

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