U.S. District Court Judge Louis H. Pollak largely granted a motion for summary judgment for seasonal landscaping workers in an early January order against the Brickman Group for transportation costs that took their wages below minimum wage.

The workers, represented by Friends of Farmworkers, a Pennsylvania legal services organization, are citizens of Mexico and Guatemala who were recruited to work for the Brickman Group between 2003 and 2005 using work visas under the H-2B program for temporary unskilled nonagricultural workers.

Pollak ruled that the workers’ costs for transportation from their point of hire, their visa costs and fees paid to Brickman-designated “workers’ representatives” were costs primarily for the employer’s benefit. As such, the costs operated as “de facto” deductions, which brought the workers’ wages below the minimum wage under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act.

The case was brought on behalf of a group of about 100 workers in Pennsylvania and other states. Pollak determined that other federal statutes argued by Brickman’s attorneys were not relevant and that the Fair Labor Standards Act governed the claims.

The parties have been ordered by the judge to consult with one another to determine whether, in light of his ruling, they can agree on the amount of damages that should be awarded and to report back to him within four weeks. The case, Rivera v. the Brickman Group, is believed to be widely watched by both worker and business advocates nationally for its broader impact on industries that widely employ temporary foreign workers.

The case is just one example of work by Friends of Farmworkers providing representation to an expanding group of low-paid immigrants working in Pennsylvania. For 30 years, Friends of Farmworkers has provided legal assistance and education on legal rights to farm workers in Pennsylvania, struggling to improve their working and living conditions.

It is sometimes easy for those living in Philadelphia to forget how important agriculture is to the economy of Pennsylvania and how many farmworkers there are in the commonwealth. Pennsylvania has about 50,000 farm workers, who are among the most vulnerable of its workers.

Although conditions have improved over the last 30 years due, in part, to the work of Friends of Farmworkers, there continue to be many serious problems. These include underpayment or nonpayment of wages, substandard housing, unsafe and unhealthy working conditions, discrimination on the basis of race, sex and national origin, and retaliation against workers for exercising their rights. Assistance on an individual case, obtaining unpaid wages, for example � even where the amount of wages owed is relatively small � can have a profound impact on the quality of life for the worker and the worker’s family.

Representation of individuals on cases is only one part of the advocacy program of Friends of Farmworkers. Other work includes class action litigation, legislative and administrative advocacy, and community education. The work of Friends of Farmworkers has had a significant positive impact on agricultural employment practices in Pennsylvania and has been a national model for other programs.

For the past several years, the demand for assistance from other low-income immigrant workers facing many of the same kinds of problems has been increasing, particularly in related areas, like landscaping and food processing. While the battle continues to rage over an agreement on comprehensive immigration reform, the demand for immigrant workers in these industries has continued to increase.

Pennsylvania has become one of the largest users in the country of temporary workers under a program known as the H-2B program, for what are considered nonskilled, nonagricultural workers, like landscaping workers. Many thousands of workers are brought in nationally by the landscaping industry, with employers claiming that it is impossible to recruit workers domestically. The program has been a controversial one, with a number of organizations citing widespread abuses of workers, such as the Southern Poverty Law Center in its report, “Close to Slavery: Guestworker Programs in the United States.”

Most workers recruited to work in the United States on H-2B visas are not eligible for assistance from any legal-services program that accepts funding from the federal Legal Services Corporation, such as Philadelphia Legal Assistance and Legal Aid of Southeastern Pennsylvania in the Pennsylvania suburbs of Philadelphia. LSC-funded programs are permitted to represent H-2A temporary agricultural workers, and they are now also permitted to represent H-2B forestry workers but not other H-2B workers, like landscaping workers.

Many of these workers are from the same communities and face the same kinds of employment problems: wage payment problems (including not receiving the minimum wage), unsafe and unhealthy working conditions, and abuse by labor contractors. Sometimes they are the same individuals, working as mushroom workers, for example, and then after being laid off, finding work in landscaping. Most of them simply have nowhere else to turn for help.

Given the limited resources of Friends of Farmworkers, its staff will not be able to assist everyone who needs and seeks assistance, but success in cases such as its victory in the Brickman litigation will have a positive effect on the lives of many workers.

The Philadelphia Bar Association and the Philadelphia legal community have provided a great deal of support for Friends of Farmworkers over the years through financial support of the Bar Foundation and contributions from firms and individual attorneys, pro bono assistance to clients and to the program, and various initiatives to increase access to the justice system for those with limited English proficiency.

For further information on Friends of Farmworkers, including how to volunteer or contribute, contact Karen Detamore at 215-733-0878, ext. 110 or e-mail her at kdetamore@friendsfw.org.

Karen Detamore has been the executive director of Friends of Farmworkers for over 18 years. She serves on the Board of Governors of the Philadelphia Bar Association and is the co-chairwoman of the committee of the legal rights of persons with disabilities. She is also the president of the Pennsylvania Project Directors Association (the association of directors of legal services programs in Pennsylvania).

Karen Detamore has been the executive director of Friends of Farmworkers for over 18 years. She serves on the Board of Governors of the Philadelphia Bar Association and is the co-chairwoman of the committee of the legal rights of persons with disabilities. She is also the president of the Pennsylvania Project Directors Association (the association of directors of legal services programs in Pennsylvania).