Appeals Court Applies Agricultural Exception to Case Involving Tennessee Worm Farmers

Workers at a business that housed, raised, and sold worms for fishing bait lost another round in their case seeking compensation for unpaid overtime. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with a Chattanooga-based federal district judge that the agriculture exception to the Fair Labor Standards Act’s overtime pay requirement applied to the worm farm. The worm farm, the Sixth Circuit decided, reasonably resembled an ordinary agricultural operation in almost every relevant way. The only major difference was the unfamiliar item that the farm was farming.

The business under scrutiny in this case was one run by Bruno Durant, a French immigrant who relocated to Georgia to grow and raise worms that he then sold for use as fishing bait. After a decade in Georgia, Durant moved his operation to rural Tennessee. The business consisted of importing baby worms from Europe before housing and feeding them on his property in Tennessee. Once the worms reached maturity and grew to a sufficient size to be fit for sale as bait (roughly double their size during their time on Durant’s farm), the farm sold them to retailers.

The farm did not pay its employees overtime, which led two Silver Bait employees to sue the farm on behalf of themselves and several other coworkers, claiming that the farm had violated the FLSA and owed them unpaid overtime. Although the FLSA expressly exempts agricultural employers from the law’s overtime requirements, the workers proceeded, claiming that worm farming was not included in the FLSA’s agricultural exception.

The farm argued that any common-sense reading of the FLSA led to a clear conclusion that worm farming was a covered agricultural activity under the statute. The trial court agreed and issued a judgment in Silver Bait’s favor. The workers appealed but were not successful. The FLSA’s text explicitly mentions “employee[s] employed in agriculture” as exempt from receiving overtime under the FLSA. Well-established U.S. Supreme Court law concluded that this exception “embrace[s] the whole field of agriculture.”

This left the Sixth Circuit to contemplate what exactly is, or is not, within the parameters of the term “agriculture.” Agriculture includes both farming and non-farming activities closely related to farming. While worm farming might not be a traditional agricultural pursuit, it was nevertheless an activity that involved “the production of animals useful to man and the preparation of products for man’s use.” Much like hog farmers or cattle ranchers, a worm farmer grows his creatures for sale as a commodity. Even though the worms were not being raised to be consumed as a food by humans, that did not mean that worm farming was not agriculture. Farms that raise race horses, for example, have previously been included within the agriculture exception.

The court was also not persuaded by the workers’ evidence that Silver Bait’s operation, in some ways, did not resemble a conventional farm. The farm employed concrete worm beds and sorting machines that, the court acknowledged, resembled an industrial business. This did not defeat the exception, however, since many types of agriculture, including many modern modes of hog and poultry farming, are similar in terms of their industrial qualities. The primary thing that differentiated Silver Bait’s farm from traditional farms was the unfamiliarity of worm farming, the court decided. This was not enough to take the worm farm outside the agriculture exception.

If you’re an agricultural or agriculture-related employer or worker, it is important to understand exactly what the FLSA, and the FLSA’s agriculture exception, cover. For advice and representation regarding the agriculture exception, overtime pay, and other FLSA issues, reach out to the experienced Tennessee overtime attorneys at Parks, Chesin & Walbert. Our attorneys have many years of experience helping employers and employees in a wide array of fields of employment and are ready and equipped to help you as well.

To speak with one of our lawyers about your case, call 404-873-8048.

More blog posts:

Georgia Exotic Dancer Launches New FLSA Lawsuit Against Athens Club, Atlanta Employment Attorneys Blog, Jan. 13, 2016

New Overtime Wage Requirements Could Grant Overtime Rights to Thousands of Georgia Workers, Atlanta Employment Attorneys Blog, Feb. 18, 2015

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