Employees at a Massachusetts bean sprout factory misclassified as agricultural workers were improperly denied overtime pay, the state’s highest court decided.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled March 15 that a lower court erred when it agreed with factory owner Chang & Sons Enterprises Inc. that the workers performed agricultural work. The company claimed it could deny overtime pay to the workers at its Whately, Mass., bean sprout factory because “agriculture and farming” is one of about 20 types of work exempted from the state’s overtime law.

Evidence presented in the case showed that the facility’s bean sprout growing operations were mostly automated. The workers “were not involved in the growing operations, but instead cleaned, inspected, sorted, weighed, and packaged the bean sprouts. They also cleaned the facility and discarded waste,” according to court documents.

“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,” Justice Kimberly S. Budd wrote for the court.

The court remanded the case back to Massachusetts Superior Court.

Owed $25,000

Letitia Medina-Richman, managing attorney of the Central West Justice Center, which represented the workers, told Bloomberg Law the 15 workers are owed approximately $25,000 in unpaid wages, a figure that will likely rise as damages are calculated.

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,” Medina-Richman said.

Other occupations exempted from the state’s overtime law include janitors, golf caddies, executives, outside salesmen, apprentices, seamen, fishermen, and telephone switchboard operators; as well as employees of hotels, gas stations, nonprofit schools and colleges, hospitals, restaurants, and amusement parks.

History of Violations

The factory owner, Chang & Sons Enterprises Inc. of South Deerfield, Mass., has a history of wage violations. The company has been cited three times, most recently in 2015, by the U.S. Department of Labor for failing to properly pay workers. The DOL ordered the company to pay the workers over $400,000 in back pay.

Attorney Sandra E. Lundy represented the company, which didn’t respond to a call seeking comment.

The case is Arias-Villano et. al v. Chang & Son Enterprises, Inc., Mass., SJC-12548, 3/15/19.