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Carnival operators sued over wage law

Group alleges many workers are paid below state minimum

Workers who set up carnivals around New England have sued a New Hampshire amusements company, alleging it violated minimum wage and overtime laws by requiring employees to work long hours at a low weekly salary.

The suit, filed Monday in Suffolk Superior Court in Boston, alleges that E.J. Amusements of Seabrook, N.H., better known as Fiesta Shows, paid many of its employees a flat $400 per week, even though they worked an average of 14 hours a day — and sometimes as much as 22 hours in a row.

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“It comes to well under minimum wage,” said Shannon Liss-Riordan, the lawyer who filed the suit on behalf of the workers, many of whom live on site with the traveling carnival. “They work from when they wake up to when they go to sleep.”

Fiesta Shows supplies and operates carnival rides and concession stands at carnivals and fairs in Massachusetts and other New England states. This season, the company will provide equipment to more than 15 New England fairs, including the popular Topsfield Fair in October, according to the company’s website. Fiesta Shows did not respond to a request for comment.

Many of the employees of Fiesta Shows come from Mexico, according to the lawsuit, working on temporary visas, called H2-Bs, that allow foreign workers to perform seasonal labor or temporary nonagricultural jobs that American workers are unable or unwilling to fill. The carnival industry recruits thousands of people each year from small Mexican towns with struggling economies to work the nine-month fair season, according to a recent report by law students at American University and Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, a migrant workers advocacy group based in Mexico City.

In 2012, about 5,000 of the 66,000 H2-B visas issued went to carnival workers. Only the landscaping and forestry industries received more.

Since workers were paid a flat salary and often worked up to 95 hours a week, Liss-Riordan said, she estimated their average wages were about $4 an hour. The minimum wage is $8 an hour in Massachusetts and employers must pay 1.5 times the usual hourly rate when employees work more than 40 hours a week.

“It’s unfortunate,” said Jessica Stender, acting legal director at Centro de los Derechos del Migrante. “These workers are doing incredibly hard work, assembling rides, disassembling them, often working from very high heights.”

The suit lists only one plaintiff, Jorge Pilar Garcia, but Liss-Riordan said she is seeking a class-action status because hundreds of workers were potentially denied minimum wage and overtime.

Gail Waterhouse can be reached at gail.waterhouse@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @gailwaterhouse.
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