A federal judge in Alexandria has awarded $30,000 to 14 Florida-based migrant workers after citing a Northern Virginia fruit-growing firm for numerous violations of federal labor laws.

U.S. District Judge Albert V. Bryan Jr. found that Freezeland Orchard Co. Inc., a family-owned firm operating in Warren and Fauquier counties, had, among other things, failed to provide adequate housing to a married couple living in a room constructed of cardboard and collected money for food in an arrangement that the judge defined as an "indirect kickback."

"That's a fairly hefty award," said the workers' attorney, Gregory S. Schell, of the Legal Aid Bureau in Salisbury, Md. "I think {the decision} sent a fairly clear message" to area growers.

An estimated 15,000 migrant workers are seasonally employed in Maryland and Virginia each year, Schell said, with the majority working in Virginia.

"You're telling me news," said the Freezeland firm's owner, Ben Lacy, of Linden, Va., when informed yesterday of Bryan's Dec. 24 decision.

"If Judge Bryan did that, I feel sorry for the U.S.A. I can't imagine the judge would find that much money for the little things we did," he said. "We're not trying to hurt the laborers. We're trying to help them in giving them something to do."

Lacy said he would probably appeal the decision, "but I don't know whether we can afford it."

The 14 laborers who sued Freezeland were employed by the firm during the 1985 and 1986 apple crop harvesting seasons and were housed in a camp in Marshall, Va. Bryan's decision followed a one-day bench trial this month.

According to Roger C. Rosenthal, executive director of the Washington-based Migrant Legal Action Program, "each of the issues" addressed in Bryan's ruling "are common problems" for migrant workers along the East Coast.

In citing Freezeland for failing to provide adequate housing, Bryan noted that two workers had "slept on soiled mattresses in the attic without beds and without heat" and that a husband and wife working as apple pickers "were housed in a room constructed of cardboard" smaller than the 50 square feet per person required by federal regulations.

Freezeland attorneys argued that the husband had been provided with adequate housing until his wife arrived and that then he had constructed the cardboard enclosure himself for greater privacy.

But Bryan wrote that if "the defendants permitted workers to have their wives live in the camp with them, then it was the defendants' responsibility to make housing available that was not substandard."

Bryan also found that Freezeland had violated the Fair Labor Standards Act by collecting $40 a week for food cooked by Freezeland staff immediately after paying the laborers their wages in cash.

"Although the form of a separate transaction was maintained, the substance of the arrangement was the indirect kickback" forbidden by federal law, Bryan wrote. "It was both an implicit and expressed condition that if a worker did not pay immediately, {contractor Charlie} Daniels . . . would not feed him or her for the coming week."

Freezeland had argued that $40 was a reasonable cost and that the amount had not been an illegal withholding from the wages. But since its records were incomplete, it could not prove the $40 cost per worker was reasonable, Bryan wrote.

In addition, Bryan found that Freezeland violated the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Workers Protection Act by: Permitting its farm labor contractor, Daniels, to transport the workers in an uninsured vehicle. Failing to provide workers with written employment terms in the language they spoke. Most of the plaintiffs are Creole-speaking Haitians. Failing to keep required records.

In assessing damages, Byran noted that Freezeland had assured him it had already rectified the violations. But this was outweighed, he wrote, by its "recalcitrance in complying with many of the regulations until after suit was filed. In addition, the defendants persist even now in their position that they have done nothing wrong except perhaps overlooking technicalities."

Contractor Daniels also was a defendant and was held liable -- with Freezeland for $26,400 and by himself for $1,900.