A group of legal guest workers employed as general laborers or landscapers are trying to recover unpaid minimum wage and overtime compensation from a Mississippi-based landscaping company after they were fired for complaining about their conditions, according to a complaint filed last week.
Backyard Lawn LLC, a landscaping company that performs commercial and residential landscaping for customers in parts of Mississippi and Tennessee, allegedly provided an employment contract for Meliton Bolanos-Ramirez and other unnamed complainants, setting an hourly minimum wage of $11.36 per hour and an overtime rate of $17.04 per hour.
The company hired Bolanos-Ramirez and the other employees — all Mexican citizens — under the H-2B temporary foreign worker visa program, part of the H-2 sponsorship programs designated for agricultural or other “lesser-skilled” occupations, which grants them legal status. As part of the visa program, employees should be reimbursed for the consulate interview fee, visa fee, border crossing fee, and transportation costs associated with obtaining their H-2B visas.
Instead, the complaint stated that workers were overcharged for housing and were deducted fees associated with the sponsorship program from their paychecks. When Bolanos-Ramirez complained to Backyard Lawn’s owner and manager Bryant Jernigan about “not being compensated for overtime” in compliance with the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), Jernigan responded by terminating Bolanos-Ramirez’s employment.
According to the complaint, Jernigan “also threated [sic] to report Plaintiff to immigration and to kick Plaintiff out of the housing supplied by Defendants.”
Bolanos-Ramirez is not the first — and won’t be the last — immigrant to experience wage theft from employers who use the H-2 visa programs to take advantage of legal guest workers. In June, Mexican guest workers sponsored under the H-2A visa program, which is specifically reserved for agricultural work, alleged that they were housed in squalid conditions, paid less than the guaranteed wage, and threatened with deportation or arrest.
A May 2015 Economic Policy Institute report found that temporary legal guest-workers are just as likely to be subjected to low wages as undocumented workers. H-2 visa holders “are tied to [individuals’] employers, therefore they cannot change employers or jobs while working in the U.S,” Lauren Apgar, the EPI study author, said during a panel in May.