The FLSA Fisherman Exemption

The next topic in this series of blue collar exemptions to the FLSA is the fisherman exemption. While this exemption is somewhat obscure, it has special importance to Louisiana workers and companies. Fisheries are a major driver of the Louisiana economy and, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service, more fish and shellfish are harvested in Louisiana than any other state in the Continental United States. Given the long and irregular hours which many fisherman work, the potential for overtime is significant.  The fisherman exemption acts to exempt many – but not all – workers in the fisheries industry from both the overtime and the minimum wage requirements of the Fair Labor Standards Act.

The fisherman’s exemption is found in Section 213(a)(5) of the FLSA, which applies to:

any employee employed in the catching, taking, propagating, harvesting, cultivating, or farming of any kind of fish, shellfish, crustacea, sponges, seaweeds, or other aquatic forms of animal and vegetable life, or in the first processing, canning or packing such marine products at sea as an incident to, or in conjunction with, such fishing operations, including the going to and returning from work and loading and unloading when performed by any such employee…

This exemption is primarily intended to cover workers directly involved in catching or harvesting fish and other seafoods, and is aimed at fishermen, oystermen, and shrimpers actually working on vessels.  However, it also covers workers who perform tasks that are closely related to that initial catch, what the statute calls “first processing.”  The federal regulations define “first processing” as including icing, freezing, filleting, cutting, scaling, or salting, provided these tasks are performed aboard the ship.  Other exempt tasks also include integral maintenance, such as net-mending and engine repair, that occurs on a fishing vessel.  Loading or unloading the catch is likewise considered integral to the fishing operation and therefore exempt.

Notably, the exemption does not cover seafood processers whose work occurs after the “first processing” aboard ship.  The regulations expressly state that onshore activities, occurring after the catch has been unloaded, are not covered by the fisherman exemption.  While an earlier version of the law did exempt employees who worked onshore in canning, processing, or marketing seafood, that provision was repealed in the 1970s.  Therefore, employees who work primarily onshore, in tasks not directly related to the initial harvest and processing at sea, must be paid overtime.  Similarly, office and clerical workers who are only indirectly involved with fishing operations must be paid overtime unless they are covered by one of the white collar exemptions to the FLSA.

If you have any questions about the blue collar exemptions, or the FLSA and wage and hour law in general, call (504) 267-0777 or email Charles Stiegler today.