On March 15, 2019, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court held that the "agricultural" exemption to the Massachusetts Overtime Law, M.G.L. c. 151, § 1A, does not apply to workers who perform post-harvesting activities. This decision, in the case of Arias-Villano v. Chang & Sons Enterprises, Inc., greatly expands the number of employees who are eligible for overtime under state law. In reaching this decision, the court also demonstrated that just because an employee may be exempt from overtime under federal law does not automatically mean that the employee also is exempt under the Massachusetts Overtime Law.
The plaintiffs in Arias-Villano worked in a facility dedicated to growing bean sprouts. This heavily automated hydroponic facility operated year-round. At the facility, computers monitored the sprouts and dispensed water and fertilized as needed. Thus, the plaintiffs were not involved in the planting, care, or harvesting of the bean sprouts. Instead, after the bean sprouts were harvested, the plaintiffs cleaned, inspected, sorted, weighed, and packaged them. They also cleaned the facility and discarded waste as needed. The plaintiffs regularly worked more than 40 hours per week.
The plaintiffs filed a lawsuit in Massachusetts Superior Court, alleging that their employer violated the Massachusetts Overtime Law, M.G.L. c. 151, § 1A. The Overtime Law generally requires employers to pay employees at a rate of time and one-half their regular rate of pay for every hour worked over 40 hours in a workweek.
In response, the employer argued that the plaintiffs were not eligible for overtime because they fell within the Overtime Law's exemption for employees "engaged in agriculture and farming on a farm." The Superior Court concluded that this exemption applied to the plaintiffs and entered summary judgment for the employer. The plaintiffs then appealed.
The Supreme Judicial Court's Decision
On appeal, the Supreme Judicial Court focused on the meaning of the phrase "agriculture and farming." The Court began its analysis by citing to prior decisions that stand for the proposition that exemptions to the Massachusetts Overtime Law are to be construed narrowly.
The Court then observed that another section of the statute defines "agricultural and farm work" as "labor on a farm and the growing and harvesting of agricultural, floricultural and horticultural commodities . . . unless the context clearly requires otherwise." Applying that definition to the facts in Arias-Villano, the Court concluded that the exemption was inapplicable to the plaintiffs because the definition did not include "post harvesting activities" such as those performed by the plaintiffs.
In reaching that conclusion, the Supreme Judicial Court expressly rejected the employer's argument that the Court should adopt the definition of "agriculture" contained in the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), the federal overtime law. Although noting that the Massachusetts Overtime Law was modeled after the FLSA, the Court stated that "the two are not identical" and the Massachusetts Overtime Law was enacted, in part, "to provide overtime compensation for many of those workers not covered by the FLSA."
The Court went on to say that, although the original agricultural exemption considered by the Massachusetts legislature was modeled on the FLSA (and encompassed post-harvesting activities), "the statute that was ultimately enacted contained a much more narrow definition of 'agricultural and farm work.'" Therefore, the Supreme Judicial Court declined to adopt the FLSA definition.
Accordingly, the Court reversed the entry of summary judgment for the employer and allowed the entry of summary judgment for the plaintiffs.
The Implications of Arias-Villano
In the wake of this decision, Massachusetts employers with workers who engage in post-harvesting activities, such as cleaning, weighing, sorting, and packaging, should carefullyreview how they are compensating those employees.
More broadly, the decision in Arias-Villano highlights that just because an employee may be exempt from overtime under the FLSA does not mean that the employee also is exempt under the Massachusetts Overtime Law. As this case demonstrates, although there are some similarities between the two laws, the exemptions to each are not always identical. In addition, in this case the Supreme Judicial Court began its analysis by noting that exemptions to the Massachusetts Overtime Law are to be construed narrowly. In contrast, last year the United States Supreme Court held, in the case of Encino Motorcars, LLC v. Navarro, that it would no longer apply that canon of statutory construction to exemptions under the FLSA.
Employers should work with employment counsel if they have questions about how to comply with their obligations under the FLSA and/or the Massachusetts Overtime Law.
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