Class action suit filed against AT&T for restricted lunch breaks

According to the Fair Labor Standard Act, if an employee works more than 40 hours per week, he or she is entitled to overtime pay for those additional hours. This is universally understood and it is rare for an employer to overtly deny its employees this right. However, some companies may avoid an employee rights violation by working around this requirement. Instead of denying overtime, an employer might take measures to ensure that its employees stay within the regular 40 hours.

A class action lawsuit has recently been filed against AT&T for just such behavior. According to an attorney for the plaintiffs, the telecommunications company has been forcing its employees to work, without pay, during their lunch breaks. If the employees were compensated for their work, they would exceed 40 hours and AT&T would have to pay overtime.

The workers are not forced to work, per se, but they are subjected to heavy restrictions while on break. For example, they may be prohibited from going home, from leaving their vehicles, from traveling more than a half-mile for lunch, or from listening to music or reading the newspaper. According to the plaintiffs’ attorney, such a break is no break at all, and employees should be paid for their time.

There is no federal law that requires employers to give their employees lunch breaks. However, if breaks are to be provided, they should be largely unrestricted, the plaintiffs argue. California is the only state to legally mandate that employers provide at least a 30-minute break for any employee who works more than five hours at a time. Employers are not obligated to ensure that employees take their breaks, only that they are aware of them.

AT&T has responded to the lawsuit via a spokesperson statement. According to the spokesperson, the company is dedicated to complying with all laws and regulations regarding employee rights, including wage and hour laws.

Source: Huffington Post, “Indiana AT&T Technicians File Class Action Lawsuit Citing Grim Break Conditions,” Meredith Bennett-Smith, Aug. 16, 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.

Hollywood city attorney sues over police officers’ pensions

Employee rights can be a contentious subject for some people, particularly when it comes to employee benefits. Illegal or unfair treatment by an employer sometimes requires legal intervention. In these cases, it helps to have an attorney who is familiar with employment law and who can devise creative solutions to disputes between companies and their employees. This is true even if voters elect the employer and the employees are public servants, such as law enforcement officers.

The city commission in Hollywood, Florida, is currently in a legal dispute with the city’s police force over the now-defunct Deferred Retirement Option Program, otherwise known as DROP. In September 2011, city residents voted to eliminate the program as part of an overall effort to drastically change public employee pensions and save the city $8.5 million.

However, Hollywood’s police officers contend that the elimination of DROP was illegal. From their viewpoint, once a person has contributed to a retirement system, he or she is entitled to the benefits of that system upon meeting the eligibility requirements. The officers assert that benefits cannot be taken away from the person without his or her consent.

In addition to suing the city, the board of Hollywood Police Officers’ Retirement System voted to admit a police sergeant into DROP. The officer is the first to become eligible for the program after it was dissolved last year. In retaliation, the city commissioners gave approval to a city attorney to file a lawsuit against the board. According to the attorney, the issue comes down to whether the pension is considered a retirement benefit or a change in employee status.

The city of Hollywood is in a tight spot. While the commissioners are sympathetic to the plight of city employees who were cut out of the program just as they became eligible for it, Hollywood is trying to bridge a budget gap of $38 million. It is clear that city employees will need a tough attorney on their side who is able to fight for their employee rights and negotiate the best deal for them.

Source: Orlando Sentinel, “Hollywood OKs lawsuit over cop’s entry into defunct retirement program,” Tonya Alanez, July 18, 2012

Florida retaliation suits are on the rise

According to statistics compiled by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, retaliation charges in Florida and across the country have more than doubled since 2000.

In 2011, retaliation was the leading charge filed with the EEOC against Florida employers, comprising 39.9% of all discrimination claims. In the same year, the number of discrimination lawsuits filed in Florida’s federal courts also increased 6% from the previous year. Nationwide, such charges accounted for 37.4% of all charges filed with the EEOC.

Sources attribute a variety of factors for the increase in retaliation claims. More employees have access to information regarding the employment law protections available to them. In a sluggish economy, difficulty finding another job after a layoff or termination may cause other workers to resort to retaliation suits.

Another reason may be the probability of success: retaliation charges result in favorable outcomes for employees more than other types of discrimination suits. For example, a sample of 30 retaliation claims resolved in Florida’s federal courts in 2011 shows that 13 received employer verdicts, whereas 17 were resolved either by verdicts for the employee or settlements. The verdicts awarded employees amounts between $5,000 and $200,000; the settlements also included amounts up to $200,000.

In addition, punitive damages are frequently awarded in retaliation lawsuits. Under Florida law, punitive damages are typically awarded when a jury finds that the defendant was guilty of intentional misconduct or gross misconduct, based on clear and convincing evidence. In retaliation cases (not involving unreasonable financial gain), the amount of punitive damages awarded is typically 3 times the amount of compensatory damages received, up to a cap of $500,000.

If you believe your employer has discriminated against you and violated federal or state laws in your workplace, an attorney can help you prepare a claim. An attorney can also protect your rights in the event your employer retaliates against you for reporting unlawful conduct.

Source: Miami Herald, “Impact of retaliation claims on small businesses,” Lori Adelson, July 7, 2012