vidalia onion

A federal judge has ordered a Vidalia onion producer to pay nearly $1.5 million in back wages and damages to workers for overtime pay, the U.S. Department of Labor announced Thursday.

Following a bench trial and a series of stipulations from both sides, U.S. Chief District Judge J. Randal Hall of the Southern District of Georgia ordered Bland Farms Production and Packing of Glennville—identified on its website as the largest grower, packer and shipper of sweet onions in the U.S.—to pay $1.48 million in back wages and liquidated damages. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division alleged that Bland violated the Fair Labor Standards Act.

The company will appeal, CEO Jeffrey Bailey said by email Thursday. “Bland Farms respects but disagrees with the District Court’s decision against it. Bland Farms will appeal the decision.”

Owner Delbert Bland has tangled in the past with regulators over shipping timing limits for sweet onions, which his company produces year-round, according to the website.

The department alleged that Bland failed to pay overtime to approximately 460 employees over the span of six years. The Fair Labor Standards Act requires employers to pay workers time and a half when they exceed 40 hours in a workweek, the department noted in a news release Thursday. The overtime rule exempts company workers involved in primary agriculture, the act of growing product; or secondary agriculture, the act of processing, and packaging the product grown by that company. The department alleged violations for packing-shed employees involved in the processing and packaging of onions grown by other farmers who were contracted with the company to grow onions for sale to Bland.

“This decision recovers back wages for hundreds of workers in an industry where these violations are all too common,” Southeast regional administrator for the Wage and Hour Division Wayne Kotowski said in a news release. “We are committed to enforcement and educational efforts to ensure that workers know their rights and employers know their responsibilities.”

The court rejected Bland’s contention that the advice the company provided to the contract farmers was sufficient to make Bland a farmer of the onions grown by those farmers. The department and the court determined that, because Bland was not the farmer of the onions grown by the contract farmers, processing and packaging of those onions was not incidental to Bland’s farming operations. The department contended the agricultural exemption from overtime requirements did not apply to the packing-shed employees when they processed onions not grown on Bland property.

“This case makes it clear to agricultural producers like Bland that, if you’re not growing the produce, the agricultural exemption from overtime does not apply,” Regional Solicitor Stanley Keen said in the release. “A decision like this one levels the playing field for other large producers who pay their packing house employees as the law requires.”

This article has been changed to reflect a correction. The initial version misidentified the court where Chief Judge J. Randal Hall sits. He is in the Southern District of Georgia, not the Northern District.