SJC rules that workers at Whately farm entitled to overtime pay

  • Chang Farm on River Road in Whately, not far from Mount Sugarloaf.  STAFF PHOTO/ANDY CASTILLO

Staff Writer
Published: 3/15/2019 5:12:37 PM

WHATELY — A Whately farm will be required to pay at least 16 current and former employees overtime wages for work they did in a bean sprout processing plant.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Friday ruled, in an appeal from a case in Franklin Superior Court in Greenfield, that state law requires these workers at Chang Farm, who cleaned, sorted, weighed and packaged bean sprouts in the 44,000-square-foot facility, to get time-and-a-half compensation.

“As the plaintiffs here were not engaged in agriculture and farming within the meaning of the agricultural exemption, we conclude that they were entitled to overtime pay for work performed in excess of forty hours per week, as provided by the overtime statute,” the court wrote in its decision.

Attorneys from the Central West Justice Center who handled the case, formally known as Ana Arias-Villano and others vs. Chang & Sons Enterprises, Inc., and attorneys William C. Newman and Harris Freeman who filed a “friends of the court” brief, describe the decision as an important victory for workers’ rights.

Despite the fact that the employees regularly put in more than 40 hours per week, their employer denied them overtime pay on the grounds that state law exempts “laborers engaged in agriculture and farming on a farm” from overtime compensation.

“The employees, in this case, did not work in the growing rooms, nor did they grow or harvest bean sprouts,” Central West Justice Center lead attorney Susan Garcia Nofi said. “They performed post-harvest work in a factory-like setting.”

The highest court decided that the type of work performed by the plaintiffs did not constitute “agriculture and farming.” Instead, the justices determined that the agriculture overtime exemption applies to planting, raising, and harvesting crops, none of which was work being performed by the plaintiffs. Therefore, those who were part of the lawsuit are entitled to overtime pay for the work they performed in excess of 40 hours per week.

David Gabor at the Wagner Law Group in Boston, who represents the Chang family in the labor matter, did not immediately respond to a request for comment from the Gazette on Friday. 

Leticia Medina-Richman, managing attorney for the Central West Justice Center, added that the decision “brings clarity about what constitutes fair compensation for the many hours worked by those performing the kind of tasks that the plaintiffs performed.”

Freeman, a professor at Western New England University School of Law and member of the Immigrant Protection Project, said the decision is a “big victory” and in line with general policies in the state. 

“This decision represents another step forward for respecting the rights of low-wage workers in Massachusetts,” Freeman said. “We think this places Massachusetts in the forefront of states looking to find ways to protect workers when the federal government has failed on that front.”

Newman, director of the Western Regional Law Office of the ACLU, said the decision is consequential.

“It’s a decision that says we want workers, many from marginalized communities, to be treated fairly in Massachusetts,” Newman said.

“By construing the Massachusetts agricultural exemption narrowly and by considering its remedial purpose, the SJC ruling protects a vulnerable section of the state’s workforce from exploitation,” Newman said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.


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