You Can’t Have It Your Way: Burger King, Tomatoes and Florida Workers
The average American probably couldn’t go a day without ingesting a tomato in one form or another. It’s in your salads, on your hamburgers, or even in the ketchup that you put on your French fries. Tomatoes are involved in most of the recipes in any Mexican or Italian restaurant.
Since this vegetable is so ubiquitous to the American diet, you could reasonably assume that they must be grown in enormous quantities. And they are. In fact, thousands of tons of them are grown and harvested every year here in Florida.
Those of you who have lived here for a significant amount of time would probably not be surprised to know that the harvesting of these tomatoes is done by migrant workers. You would also probably not be surprised to know that the work is backbreaking. But what you might not know is that there is an enormous debate between a group representing those who labor in the fields and those who use those tomatoes on a massive scale. The issue that is causing such contention is a penny. One American cent. Several of which you could probably find under your couch cushions right now.
Migrant farm workers who harvest tomatoes in South Florida work about 12 hours a day. They are not paid by the hour, but rather by production. Laborers that pick for growers that sell to Burger King receive 45 cents for every 32 pound bucket of tomatoes that they produce. Over a course of a 12 hour day, that averages to somewhere in the neighborhood of minimum wage, but you have to imagine that the work isn’t worth the reward.
The reason that agricultural workers don’t receive minimum wage is because they are exempt from current Florida wage/hour law. According to the 2003 Handbook of Employment Regulations Affecting Florida Farm Employers and Workers:
The following employees are also exempt from the minimum wage and overtime requirements of the law:
• Employees who are paid on a piece-rate basis, AND were employed in agriculture as hand-harvest laborers fewer than thirteen weeks in the previous year AND commute to work daily (non-migrants).
• An employee in agriculture whose employer did not, during any calendar quarter of the preceding calendar year, use more than 500 man-days of agricultural labor.
• Any agricultural employee sixteen-years- old or younger who is:
Employed as a hand-harvest laborer.
Paid on piece-rate basis in an operation which is customarily and generally recognized as paid for on piece-rate basis in the region.
Employed on the same farm as his or her parent(s) or person(s) standing in place of his or her parent(s).
Paid at the same piece rate as employees over age sixteen on the same farm.
• Employees principally engaged in livestock range production who must be available at all hours to care for such livestock. (The judicial application of this exemption does not turn on the characteristics of land use for grazing but on conditions under which the employees perform their duties. The exemption is applicable only if the method of operation is such that the computation of hours worked caring for the stock would be extremely difficult).
So basically, as long as the labor in question involves harvesting, the growers can pay the laborers as much or as little as they want.
45 cents per basket had been the prevailing wage for close to thirty years, until the Coalition of Immokalee Workers negotiated a decent pay increase for those who worked for growers that are supplying McDonalds. The raise increased the wage to around 77 cents a bucket.
Taco Bell agreed to pay an extra penny a pound for their tomatoes, with the extra cent going directly into the pockets of the farm workers. But when the time came to negotiate with Burger King, they absolutely refused any increase in wages at all. Not even a penny per pound.
Emboldened by this move, the growers that represented Taco Bell and McDonalds began to renege on their deals and moved the wages back to the low levels that had been in place for over three decades.
In fact, the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange has gone so far as to threaten any grower who pays the extra penny a pound with a $100,000 fine.
An extra penny a pound for the growers would add up to around $250,000 a year. It’s hard to imagine how that number would hurt Goldman Sachs, which is Burger King’s parent company and one of the world’s largest investment banks.
It should also be mentioned that along with an exemption to minimum wage, the growers are also not required to provide health insurance, workers’ compensation, or benefits of any sort. A penny a pound is certainly not an unreasonable request.
The laws regarding employment in this country are far from perfect, and this is a perfect illustration of that fact. If a corporation worth billions of dollars is putting up that much of a fight over a penny a pound, you can be sure that a smaller employer will struggle twice as hard.
This further underscores the point that if you are involved in a dispute with an employer over your wages or benefits, it is crucial that you have an experienced attorney to represent you.
The attorneys at Cavey and Barrett specialize in cases involving violations of wage/hour law, and have successfully fought for those who had not been paid what they were legally owed.
Call our offices for a free legal consultation today.
Answering these broad-based questions isn’t easy. Help is a phone call away. You can contact Nancy Cavey, an experienced long-term disability attorney at 727-894-3188.