U.S. employers using aggressive worker classification or other pay practices to avoid paying overtime should heed the expensive lesson that the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) hopes to teach employer Boston Hides & Furs Ltd. and members of its management in a lawsuit filed in Boston.
Citing “knowing, deliberate and intentional” violations of federal wage and hour law, the DOL is suing Boston Hides and Furs Ltd. and company officials seeking at least $500,000 in back wages and an equal amount in liquidated damages for allegedly underpaying employees of the Chelsea wholesale animal hide business. See Solis v. Boston Hides & Furs Ltd., Anthony Andreottola, Angelo Andreottola and Antoinetta Andreottola Parisi, CV-1:12-CV-11997-MLW. The suit illustrates the significant liability that companies or their owners or management risk by failing to properly pay workers covered by the FLSA and meet other FLSA requirements.
The FLSA generally requires that an employee pay each covered employees at least the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour as well as time and one-half their regular rates for every hour they work beyond 40 per week. When the state minimum wage is higher than the federally mandated wage, and employees work more than 40 hours in a week calculated in accordance with applicable state laws, employees paid at the minimum permissible level are entitled to overtime compensation based on the higher state minimum wage. Time credited may be determined differently under state law versus the FLSA. Employers must make sure proper crediting, record keeping and payment in time to meet both applicable requirements.
The FLSA also requires employers to keep accurate records of covered employees’ wages, hours and other conditions of employment and prohibits employers from retaliating against employees who exercise their rights under the law. Special rules also may apply to the employment of children or other special populations.
The rules generally establish a legal presumption that a worker performing services is working as a covered employee of the recipient. Unfortunately, many businesses that receive services often unintentionally incur liability because they ill-advisedly misclassify workers as performing services as independent contractors, salaried employees or otherwise exempt by failing to recognize the implications of this presumption. The presumption that a worker is a covered employee generally means that an employer that treats a worker as exempt bears bear the burden of providing that a worker is not a covered employee and keeping accurate records to show that it has properly tracked the hours of and paid each covered employee.
The FLSA provides that employers who violate the law are, as a general rule, liable to employees for back wages and an equal amount in liquidated damages. State wage and hour laws also typically provide for back pay and liquidated damage awards. Attorneys’ fees and other costs often also are recoverable. In certain instances where the violations are knowing, deliberate and intentional, violators often may risk criminal as well as civil liability.
DOL Sues Boston Hides and Furs Ltd For Knowing, Deliberate & Willful FLSA Violations
The DOL lawsuit seeks to recover more than $1 million from Boston Hides and Furs Ltd and various company officials for allegedly engaging in knowing and deliberate violations of the FLSA minimum wage, overtime and retaliation rules.
The DOL filed the lawsuit in federal court in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts after a DOL Wage & Hour Division investigation found the employer committed willful and repeated violations of the minimum wage, overtime and record-keeping provisions of the FLSA including offering for shipment or sale “hot goods” produced in violation of the law during a period spanning at least three years. The suit also asserts that the company unlawfully retaliated against several workers by firing them after they cooperated with the federal investigation.
In its complaint, the DOL claims the investigation found that 14 Boston Hides & Furs employees worked approximately 10 hours per day, six days per week processing hides and furs for shipping to tanneries. DOL says Boston Hides paid these workers a daily cash wage of $50 to $70, which amounted to an hourly pay rate far below the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. The employees also were not paid time and one-half the required state minimum wage of $8 applicable for those hours worked above 40 in a week. Additionally, the defendants failed to keep adequate records of the workers’ employment, work hours and pay rates, and a representative of the defendants falsely told investigators that the company’s payroll records included all employees.
The lawsuit also charges that the defendants ordered employees to hide in a nearby house when DOL Wage and Hour Division investigators first arrived at Boston Hides & Furs so they could not be interviewed. Two days after investigators subsequently interviewed the workers, the defendants fired the workers. During their employment, DOL claims company officials threatened and subjected the workers to verbally abusive treatment on an ongoing basis, particularly when they asked about their pay rates.
In addition to back wages and liquidated damages, the DOL lawsuit seeks to permanently prohibit the defendants from future FLSA violations — including a prohibition against shipping any goods handled by workers who were paid in violation of the law — and compensatory and punitive damages for the workers on account of their unlawful firing. The Wage and Hour Division also has assessed $100,000 in civil money penalties against Boston Hides & Furs Ltd. for willful violations of the FLSA.
Overtime & Other Wage & Hour Enforcement Risks Rising
Employers increasingly risk triggering significant liability by failing to properly characterize, track and pay workers for compensable time in violation of the FSLA or other laws. Unfortunately, many employers often are overly optimistic or otherwise fail to properly understand and apply FLSA rules for characterizing on-call or other time, classifying workers as exempt versus non-exempt or making other key determinations.
Employers wearing rose-tinted glasses when making wage and hour worker classification or compensable time determinations tend to overlook the significance of the burden of proof they can expect to bear should their classification be challenged. These mistakes can be very costly. Employers that fail to properly pay employees under Federal and state wage and hour regulations face substantial risk. In addition to liability for back pay awards, violation of wage and hour mandates carries substantial civil – and in the case of willful violations, even criminal liability. Civil awards commonly include back pay, punitive damages and attorneys’ fees.
The potential that noncompliant employers will incur these liabilities has risen significantly in recent years. Under the Obama Administration, DOL officials have made it a priority to enforce overtime, record keeping, worker classification and other wage and hour law requirements. While all employers face heightened prosecution risks, federal officials specifically are targeting government contractors, health care, technology and certain other industry employers for special scrutiny. DOL also is using smart phone applications, social media and a host of other new tools to educate and recruit workers in its effort to find and prosecute violators. See, e.g. New Employee Smart Phone App New Tool In Labor Department’s Aggressive Wage & Hour Law Enforcement Campaign Against Restaurant & Other Employers. Meanwhile, private enforcement of these requirements by also has soared following the highly-publicized implementation of updated FLSA regulations on the classification of workers during the last Bush Administration. See Record $2.3 Million+ Backpay Order; Minimum Wage, Overtime Risks Highlighted By Labor Department Strike Force Targeting Residential Care & Group Homes; Review & Strengthen Defensibility of Existing Worker Classification Practices In Light of Rising Congressional & Regulatory Scrutiny; 250 New Investigators, Renewed DOL Enforcement Emphasis Signal Rising Wage & Hour Risks For Employers; Quest Diagnostics, Inc. To Pay $688,000 In Overtime Backpay.
Employers Should Strengthen Practices For Defensibility
To minimize exposure under the FLSA, employers should review and document the defensibility of their existing practices for classifying and compensating workers under existing Federal and state wage and hour laws and take other actions to minimize their potential liability under applicable wages and hour laws. Steps advisable as part of this process include, but are not necessarily limited to:
- Audit of each position current classified as exempt to assess its continued sustainability and to develop documentation justifying that characterization;
- Audit characterization of workers obtained from staffing, employee leasing, independent contractor and other arrangements and implement contractual and other oversight arrangements to minimize risks that these relationships could create if workers are recharacterized as employed by the employer receiving these services;
- Review the characterization of on-call and other time demands placed on employees to confirm that all compensable time is properly identified, tracked, documented, compensated and reported;
- Review of existing practices for tracking compensable hours and paying non-exempt employees for compliance with applicable regulations and to identify opportunities to minimize costs and liabilities arising out of the regulatory mandates;
- If the audit raises questions about the appropriateness of the classification of an employee as exempt, self-initiation of appropriate corrective action after consultation with qualified legal counsel;
- Review of existing documentation and record keeping practices for hourly employees;
- Exploration of available options and alternatives for calculating required wage payments to non-exempt employees; and
- Reengineering of work rules and other practices to minimize costs and liabilities as appropriate in light of the regulations and enforcement exposures.
Because of the potentially significant liability exposure, employers generally will want to consult with qualified legal counsel before starting their risk assessment and assess risks and claims within the scope of attorney-client privilege to help protect the ability to claim attorney-client privilege or other evidentiary protections to help shelter conversations or certain other sensitive risk activities from discovery under the rules of evidence.
For Help With Investigations, Policy Updates Or Other Needs
If you need help in conducting a risk assessment of or responding to an IRS, DOL, Justice Department, PBGC, private plaintiff or other legal challenges to your organization’s existing workforce classification or other labor and employment, employee benefit or compensation practices, please contact the author of this update, attorney Cynthia Marcotte Stamer here or at (469) 767-8872 .
Board Certified in Labor & Employment Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, management attorney and consultant Ms. Stamer is nationally and internationally recognized for more than 23 years of work helping employers; employee benefit plans and their sponsors, administrators, fiduciaries; employee leasing, recruiting, staffing and other professional employment organizations; and others design, administer and defend innovative workforce, compensation, employee benefit and management policies and practices. The Chair of the American Bar Association (ABA) RPTE Employee Benefits & Other Compensation Committee, a Council Representative on the ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits, Government Affairs Committee Legislative Chair for the Dallas Human Resources Management Association, past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group, Ms. Stamer often has worked, extensively on these and other workforce and performance related matters. She also is recognized for her publications, industry leadership, workshops and presentations on these and other human resources concerns and regularly speaks and conducts training on these matters. Her insights on these and other matters appear in the Bureau of National Affairs, Spencer Publications, the Wall Street Journal, the Dallas Business Journal, the Houston Business Journal, and many other national and local publications. For more information about Ms. Stamer and her experience or to get access to other publications by Ms. Stamer see here or contact Ms. Stamer directly.
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