Big business attempts to strike down wage reform measures

Everyone knows that big business is influential on the national stage. Many corporations are able to bully politicians into adopting measures that benefit large businesses. A recent case out of Florida shows that big business’s influence remains strong in the wage and hour laws debate in Orange County.

The 50,000 people who signed a petition to bring a sick-time initiative to vote may be left in the cold this season. Those people had hoped to mandate sick-time standards in the region for local workers. The changes are opposed by powerful corporate groups such as entertainment behemoth Walt Disney World and the Florida Chamber of Commerce.

Two bills submitted by Republican lawmakers are taking aim at proposed workers’ rights in the area. One proposed measure would grant workers up to five sick days, but employers would not be required to pay employees for that time off. The other reform measure seems to favor big business entirely, leaving out sick leave provisions altogether and attempting to kill living wage provisions that would protect vulnerable workers in the area.

Supporters of the new measures say the wage reform issue should be a statewide effort rather than simply a response to local problems. Employers such as Walt Disney World say their business could suffer from a patchwork of requirements that could produce inconsistencies between counties. Still, many workers throughout Florida do not face the same concerns as Orange County residents, according to opponents, who would have local politicians mandate wage laws independent of larger policies.

The legal brawl within the county is likely to continue into the upcoming months as politicians decide whether to adopt worker protection measures. Mandatory paid sick leave could provide massive financial benefits and security for thousands of workers in the area, but big business could sadly block this initiative entirely. The most vulnerable workers in the county could suffer from this legal maneuver.

Source: Orlando Sentinel, “Lawmakers might block local wage, sick-time rules,” David Damron, Feb. 19, 2013

Employee wins settlement after time card woes

A Florida worker at a sports facility won a large settlement from a wrongful termination suit this month. The man, who served as a card dealer in the facility’s poker room, had been fired after he incorrectly recorded his hours worked, even though his employer did not permit him access to the official time clock. The man has recovered $33,700 in damages in connection with the wrongful termination case, which could increase over time.

The federal lawsuit was filed in the summer of 2011 after the man said he was wrongfully fired. The man said that his swipe badge, used to clock in and out of work, broke several months before that time. His employer and supervisors refused to issue him a new badge, so he began to record his hours manually on a sheet next to the time clock. His supervisors and the company’s payroll clerk continued to harass him about putting his hours in the computerized system, even though he was unable to do so without the appropriate equipment.

In February 2011, company administrators told the man they would stop paying him if he did not log his time electronically. The man told his employers that it was illegal to refuse to pay a worker, and he would take legal action if the company did not provide him with the earned money. Shortly thereafter, the man was fired.

Courtroom documents allege that the man’s termination was directly caused by his complaints to management about not getting paid. Representatives for the company maintain that they never violated the Federal Fair Labor Standards Act, yet the employer was also accused under Florida’s whistleblower protection law, legislation that protects people who report wrongdoing on the job.

In this case, the man recovered damages for lost wages. He may also have obtained financial compensation for emotional distress, which almost certainly occurred after the man lost his job. When dealing with a sluggish economy, losing employment is difficult — especially if a person is unfairly terminated. This is why it’s important for employees to understand their rights under state and federal law.

Source: Ocala Star-Banner, “Card room worker wins $33,700 verdict against Second Chance Jai-Alai,” Vishal Persaud, Feb. 14, 2013

Low-wage earners left out of economic growth

It’s the old story of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. Except this time, it appears to be played out right here in Florida, with a massive wage gap taking root during the past three decades. Experts estimate that the incomes of the best-paid workers have continually risen, while the lower-wage earners are still scraping the bottom of the proverbial barrel. Not only are some of the successful people violating wage and labor laws, but the situation simply shows the need for continued legislation to protect people who are the most vulnerable.

The numbers do not lie in this, according to financial experts. The top 10 percent of earners have seen their wages increase by a whopping 34 percent since the late 1970s, while those in the lower tiers have only seen an 11 percent gain. Lowest paid workers have not seen any wage change at all, demonstrating just how dire the situation can be for these employees.

Lower-paid workers should theoretically be able to reach bigger percentage gains faster, largely because even a small increase can make up a big chunk of their income. That is, a $2-per-hour gain for a person who earns $8 per hour is far more significant than it would be for someone who earns $20 per hour.

This situation illustrates the significance of wage and labor laws in our modern economy. We need to improve the protections afforded to the lowest-earning workers because those people cannot make ends meet using the current system. Experts say the only workers in Florida that have seen significant gains since 2000 were those holding MBAs, PhDs, law licenses or medical practices. Everyone else, even those with master’s degrees, lost out on their piece of the financial pie.

If you think your employer is treating you unfairly by violating wage and labor laws, you should pursue legal action. Considering the state of the down economy, it is increasingly critical to keep every dollar you earn – and get every dollar you deserve.

Source: Orlando Sentinel, “With wages, only a handful getting richer,” Jim Stratton, Jan. 27, 2013.

USF workers fight for minimal wage increase

Low-wage workers such as janitors, secretaries and maintenance personnel are often overlooked by employers. According to experts, these vulnerable workers are more likely to have their benefits and pay revoked and their employee rights violated. News out of the University of South Florida supports that assertion, with low-wage workers hitting a block in their negotiations for more pay.

Officials at the university have reportedly refused to increase the low-wage earners’ pay to accommodate the increased cost of living due to inflation. The employees’ union was working to negotiate a new payment schedule that would have provided additional wages for the lower-tier workers.

State officials say the decision to refuse cost-of-living increases comes as higher-education funds are drying up, though those cutbacks do not seem to affect the highest-paid workers at the school. The university president, for example, has received a 20 percent pay increase during the past five years, and the school’s football coach was slated to earn $2 million in 2012 before he accepted an even larger severance.

The wage problems have dominated the negotiations between union leaders and school officials for about six months, according to officials. University leaders say they are unable to afford additional expenditures at this time, considering the extreme cuts that continue to buffet institutions of higher learning at every step.

Media reports show that the union, which represents more than 1,500 USF employees, sought two increases of 3.5 percent, one for each year of a remaining contract. Although the union was willing to negotiate for a lower increase, university officials unilaterally opposed any pay increase for the school’s most vulnerable workers. Workers at the school have not received pay increases since October 2009.

Custodians and secretaries who work at the school only make between $16,000 and $25,000 each year, while skilled tradesmen such as electricians only receive about $30,000 annually. Representatives from both the union and the school continue to negotiate the remaining contract payments, though the next meeting date has not yet been set.

Source: Tampa Bay Online, “USF, workers’ union at odds over pay raise,” Mike Salinero, Dec. 17, 2012.

Bird sanctuary employees net thousands in back pay

Nine employees of the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary will be receiving a combined $21,000 in owed back wages thanks to the results of a federal investigation into the company’s payroll processes. Media reports show that investigators discovered several minimum wage violations after an audit of the facility’s records.

The sanctuary reportedly failed to pay several employees for a period of weeks. That omission resulted in minimum wage law violations. Some employees were also paid salaries without considering how many hours they actually worked at the facility. As a result, some workers’ wages dropped below the $7.25 per hour minimum wage rate. Investigators also discovered that those employees were not appropriately compensated for the overtime hours they worked at the sanctuary.

Overtime violations are particularly easy to spot; employers must pay additional wages when workers are on the clock for more than 40 hours each week. Overtime pay often involves time-and-a-half wages, which allows employees to collect 150 percent of their regular earnings.

This is not the first time that the 67-year-old owner of the sanctuary has run into legal trouble because of workers’ rights issues. The facility was forced to close its doors for several days in 2007 because it failed to pay its workers’ compensation insurance premiums. After that, the recession seemed to hit the sanctuary hard, and violations continued to spiral out of control for the owner.

As a result, the IRS is currently seeking nearly $200,000 in owed back payroll taxes, all of which remain outstanding. The IRS has placed liens for those funds, which are in addition to the $21,000 owed to the nine workers.

Wage and hour violations are not uncommon in today’s working world, especially in small, privately run businesses. Often, such establishments do not keep proper records of hours worked and wages paid; this can lead to misunderstandings and underpayment. All employers are required to pay employees for every hour worked, even if the employee works more than 40 hours per week. Failure to do so leaves the company open to lawsuits, because employees who have not been fairly compensated have a right to pursue litigation to recover the wages that are owed to them.

Source: Tampa Bay Times, “Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary to pay $21,336 in back wages after violations found,” Anne Lindberg, Nov. 16, 2012.

Eller & Sons stunned by $11M wage judgment

A Georgia horticulture contractor has been found liable for additional wages due to a group of Guatemalan and Mexican workers. A federal judge ordered the firm to pay more than $11 million to the guest workers, who did not receive appropriate pay while they were planting trees throughout the region. Eller & Sons Trees, Inc., a Franklin company, was punished for its violation of wage and hour laws in the largest court award of its kind.

The plaintiffs in the case were represented by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The award was granted despite protests from the company’s owners, who say that the lawsuit effectively bankrupted the company and its primary shareholders. Legal representatives for the defendants say that entire communities in Guatemala have essentially destroyed their own ability to make money in America because they targeted Eller & Sons. The lawsuit resulted in the company going out of business, which may have removed the only link those guest workers had to America.

Nonetheless, the class-action suit was successful in obtaining compensation for the 4,000 guest workers who were employed by the company during the 1990s and early 2000s. The company had allegedly failed to pay the workers the federal minimum wage. Workers also contended that Eller & Sons should have paid a prevailing wage instead of the unreasonably low rates.

Attorneys say that the result of this case shows a judicial commitment to protecting workers throughout the nation. Even guest workers deserve to receive a minimum standard of treatment, according to legal teams associated with the case. They say that the decision will have long-lasting effects because it will give employers reason to reconsider their wage policies considering guest workers and legal residents.

In this case, not only had the employer failed to pay the federal minimum wage, but it had also failed to provide a prevailing wage; that means that people doing similar work in the area were receiving significantly more money for the same skilled work.

Source: The Atlanta-Journal Constitution, “Judge: Georgia company must pay foreign workers $11.8 million,” Jeremy Redmon, Oct. 30, 2012.

Wal-Mart faces suit for employment wrongs

More wage and hour claims are plaguing the corporate behemoth Wal-Mart. The company is facing another lawsuit after reportedly violating minimum wage requirements throughout the nation. Wal-Mart is also accused of violating overtime rules, requiring temporary employees to show up early, work late and continue working through lunch.

The workers, who were contracted through two separate staffing agencies, filed a class-action suit against the big-box retailer early last week. The implications for this suit are important for temporary workers throughout the nation.

The civil suit comes after a series of protests that resulted in the first-ever strike against Wal-Mart in early October. Store employees, empowered by the organization OUR Wal-Mart, walked off the job in major cities including Los Angeles and Dallas, according to media reports. Strikes have also been held at some Southern California warehouses because of untenable working conditions, according to experts, and employees at a distribution center in Illinois have also prompted work stoppages.

Throughout the past decade, Wal-Mart’s employment practices have come under fire from both workers and the general public. A 2008 agreement required the company to pay more than $600 million to settle a bundle of state and federal class-action employment lawsuits. The company was accused of withholding wages as a part of those suits, as well.

Additionally, temporary employees are also alleging that Wal-Mart failed to pay the four hours of wages owed on days when a worker was contracted but not utilized. Civil cases involving temporary employees are sometimes more complicated than those that deal only with directly employed workers. Temporary employees receive their paychecks through the agencies that send them to the worksites, but they are accountable to supervisors at the site. Both Wal-Mart and the staffing agency share responsibility for ensuring that the workers have been paid.

It can seem intimidating to pursue legal action against a large company, and some employees who have been wronged may be tempted to simply give up and accept it. To do this, however, not only allows an injustice to go unpunished, but it also clears the way for a company to carry out their injustices on other workers in the future. In this case, Wal-Mart employees seem to be trusting in strength in numbers to empower them as they move forward with their litigation. It is not clear how much the workers are seeking in compensatory damages.

Source: Reuters, “Wal-Mart hit with minimum wage lawsuit as walkout threat looms,” Oct. 22, 2012.

Supervisors held personally liable for employee rights violations

According to the Fair Labor Standards Act, employees who are denied overtime pay for hours worked beyond their regular schedules may directly sue their supervisors or managers. The language of the FLSA defines “employer” broadly; anyone who acts in a supervisory capacity in the interest of the employer can be held liable for violations of employee rights.

This is good news for anyone who has ever been victimized by a neglectful boss, or taken advantage of by an unscrupulous supervisor. Knowledge of one’s rights under the law can go a long way in ensuring fair workplace practices. Managers and supervisors are less likely to deny an employee overtime pay if they know they can be held personally liable.

On the other hand, operating from limited or outdated legal knowledge can be extremely costly. In a recent case, a maintenance worker sued his employer and his immediate supervisor, alleging that he had been denied pay for extra hours worked. His supervisor attempted to have her name dropped from the suit, arguing that she was not the worker’s employer. However, the court explained that the language of the FLSA is such that anyone in control of timesheets, discipline, and scheduling-such as she was-is indeed acting in the capacity of employer.

The best way to avoid the costly effects of wage-and-hour violations, both for employees and supervisors, experts suggest, is to stay current on the relevant legal details. For example, an employee who sues just his or her employer and leaves his or her supervisor off the hook is missing out on potential monetary damages.

By the same token, a supervisor must be knowledgeable as well. In many cases, a supervisor who is found liable for an employee rights violation may be able to demand that any and all damages be paid by his or her company, since he or she was acting as a representative of the company.

Source: Human Resources Journal, “The No. 1 Employer Mistake, Wrongly Labeling Employees As Exempt From Overtime Pay: Supervisors Could Pay Big Time,” Aug. 2012.

Miami residents rally for raising minimum wage

In an exemplary display of civic action, hundreds came out to Miami recently to protest the $7.25 federal minimum wage. The rally, organized by a local activist group, 1Miami, was a response to the inequity of a steadily rising cost of living and a minimum wage stuck in the sevens. According to the organization’s data, the minimum wage should be $10.55 an hour in order to be commensurate with inflation.

Participants in the rally included many people directly affected by the minimum wage. One protester, a janitor at a luxury apartment building downtown, expressed his belief that group action is the only way to effect real change. Individual wage and hour claims often go unheard, but when hundreds of voices speak out together, there is the potential for action.

Another man, a former marine and shopping cart collector at Wal-Mart, cited his disappointment that, as a veteran, he is still living in poverty, earning just $7.70 an hour. An increase in the federal minimum wage, he feels, would enable him to better provide for his family.

Also in attendance were several activists, political figures and business leaders who, though not directly affected by the minimum wage, recognized the simple justice of a reasonable wage. One woman, a local CEO and candidate for District Commissioner, explained the absurdity of a system in which cost of living, insurance and housing all go up and wages stay the same. To her and many others, raising the minimum wage is obvious and necessary.

The rally, which took place at a waterfront park, included the symbolic laying down of bread and roses, an homage to the Lawrence Textile Strike of 1912, which helped establish the first minimum wage and promote the need for better working conditions.

Source: Huffington Post, “Miami Minimum Wage Protest: 7 People We Met at the Rally,” Christina Lilly, July 25, 2012