Articles Posted in Wage & Hour Issues

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2011_Pro_Bowl_In_Hawaii_crewIn recent months, one of the emerging issues within employment law has centered on whether groups of workers are employees or independent contractors. Recent cases from Georgia have focused on whether exotic dancers are independent contractors or employees of the clubs where they dance, with the dancers achieving a favorable ruling in at least one instance. A group of freelance stagehands obtained a less successful outcome recently, with the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals deciding that they were not employees of a referral service.

The referral agency, Crew One Productions, Inc., provided workers for live events in Atlanta and surrounding areas. The stagehands referred by Crew One worked a variety of events, ranging from concerts and sporting events to plays, trade shows, and graduations. Crew One would contract with the event planner for a number of stagehands and a specific hourly rate of pay. Crew One, which maintained a database of stagehands willing to consider taking assignments from the agency, would contact members of its database and obtain a number of available workers matching the number the event planner needed.

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‘Tis the season for holidays and, presumably, some time off with family and friends. Before finalizing any plans for an extended break, however, you might want to check the schedule at work. While spending days like Christmas and New Year’s opening gifts or lazing out to a string of bowl games seems like a no-brainer, for most workers in Georgia and Tennessee, there’s no law that says your employer can’t make you work those days.

For some jobs, like emergency services, restaurants, and retail, the notion that some people are stuck working on holidays seems pretty obvious. Less obvious to many people, though, is that neither Georgia nor Tennessee prohibits private employers—as opposed to state or municipal agencies—from requiring workers to come in on statutory holidays.

That means if the accounting firm or metal shop you work for decides December 25 should be business as usual, you’re expected to show up unless you’ve otherwise requested and been granted the time off. And there aren’t any guaranteed perks for being stuck at work while everyone else you know is home. If your employer is offering something like time and half for coming in on a holiday, that’s solely at its discretion. The only guaranteed extra pay is whatever you’d already be eligible for if the holiday sent you into overtime.

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In Johnny Cash’s One Piece at a Time, the singer tells the story of an assembly line worker who longs for one of the cars he spends his days building. Instead of pinching pennies, he devises a plan to acquire that car little by little. With an over-sized lunchbox and some help from friends, the worker smuggles home pieces every day over the course of a couple of decades. By retirement, he ends up with a Frankenstein of an automobile whose many components required the entire courthouse staff to register and results in a title weighing sixty pounds.

The dream of a “psycho-billy Cadillac” may be a little far-fetched, but internal theft by employees remains a real concern for companies, particularly retail stores and other business that sell or warehouse popular, pricey, or scarce consumer products. To combat the threat, many businesses subject employees and their belongings to screenings for stolen items at the end of their shifts. In environments like large department stores, where shifts are staggered and the searches might take only a minute or two, the delay may be inconvenient at times, but it would be tough to argue that it’s overly burdensome.

On the other hand, there are facilities doing these kinds of checks with dozens, if not hundreds, of workers whose shifts begin and end together. As anyone who’s been though a TSA line at an airport can understand, funneling that many people through checkpoints is not a quick endeavor. Instead of a two-minute delay, people at the back of the line might be waiting 20 minutes or more after their shift ends just to leave the building. Should they be compensated for that time?

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By looking at the uniforms and the trucks and scanners and just about everything else associated with any FedEx delivery driver, it’s more than reasonable that one would naturally assume they’re part of a massive payroll consisting of tens of thousands of employees for the Tennessee-based corporation. FedEx, however, would tell you that assumption is wrong. Instead, the company has a lengthy history of using independent contractors with dedicated routes to deliver its packages around the country.

Outfitted with FedEx logos, uniforms, and operating systems, it’s easy to see why a layperson might confuse the independent contractors for employees, and now courts around the country are beginning to agree. Fueled primarily by a string of class action labor lawsuits brought by FedEx drivers, state and federal courts have been thrust into deciding whether those drivers can proceed on claims reserved for employee-employer relationships. Last month, a pair of decisions from the Ninth Circuit appeals court found that, at least in California and Oregon, those drivers are actually employees of FedEx.

Spurred by claims for unpaid overtime and employment expenses as well as Family and Medical Leave Act violations, among other things, the first hurdle for the hundreds of drivers represented by the class action was to prove themselves eligible to recover on those bases. Doing so meant demonstrating that their arrangement with FedEx fell under the purview of employment. In a previous blog post, we discussed some of the basics of what distinguishes independent contractor status, but the Ninth Circuit went into great depth as it picked apart the many factors that demonstrated how little “independence” these drivers actually have.

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As the first American set to orbit Earth sat in a tiny capsule atop a giant rocket in February 1962, fellow astronaut Scott Carpenter wished him good luck with a succinct, “Godspeed, John Glenn.” Moments before, however, Carpenter was cutting the tension with a line that immediately became part of the Apollo Program’s lore and lexicon: “Remember, John, this was built by the low bidder.”

While very few endeavors will have the gravity of cobbling together millions of parts to build a missile capable of putting a human into space, there are plenty of reasons to wonder if we are getting what we paid for when we go as cheap as possible. There is, of course, the suspicion that lower prices may lead to cutting corners that will be reflected in the quality of materials and even the level of care in craftsmanship. But what if that low bid came at the expense of labor laws and undermined the economic health of a community?

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stockvault-hamburgers141793“McJobs” may soon come with a side of leverage for workers who find themselves the victims of labor law violations. In a surprising move, the general counsel for the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) last month permitted regional directors to name McDonald’s Corp. as a joint employer along with its franchisees in several pending actions. This marks a major shift to the traditional liability issues in the franchise world, where franchisees are essentially independent contractors who pay royalties to use the systems and products of the parent company, but are solely liable for any labor law violations against their W-2 employees. While this move doesn’t carry the binding power of a ruling, the potential changes it brings caught plenty of attention from the franchise world.

Under this new model, the parent company could share in the responsibility for unlawful labor practices by their franchisees. Lawyers on the corporate sides argue that such responsibility for oversight of what could be tens of thousands of franchisees would be impractical if not impossible. Workers’ and labor groups, on the other hand, point out that the parent companies already exercise a great deal of influence and control in micromanaging almost every other aspect of the businesses, from stock to procedures to store design to intellectual property and advertising. Such strict control of day-to-day operations, they say, voids any industry arguments that ensuring franchisees adhere to labor standards would require extraordinary efforts.

The move by the NLRB goes beyond McDonald’s, fast food, or even restaurants in general and could affect all kinds of retail stores and service providers who operate on the the franchise system. Adding a layer of responsibility to the franchisor-franchisee relationship would come at some financial cost to the corporate home offices, even as the franchise establishment market continues to grow. Naturally, there’s been a collective freak-out by industries and companies around the country. The recurring speculative concern is that a corporate parent ensuring basic labor laws are followed at their franchises will somehow have a negative effect on job creation.

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phone-series-3-755129-mA federal court in Tennessee recently certified a group of call center employees as a class under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), clearing the first hurdle in their class-action lawsuit.  While most federal class-action lawsuits must meet the requirements of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23, class-action lawsuits under the FLSA must instead meet the standards of FLSA section 216(b). 

In Rice v. Cellco Partnership, the employees seeking to form a class worked in the Cellco Murfreesboro, Tennessee call center, where they claimed that they were routinely required to perform work “off of the clock” that was actually compensable.  In particular, the employees needed to arrive at their desks at least 15 minutes (and most often 20 to 30 minutes) before their shift began for the purpose of preparing to log onto the Rockwell phone system and take their first calls.  The employees were allegedly disciplined if they were not prepared to take their first call at the start time, and were not allowed to include any time not reflected in the Rockwell phone system.  The employees were allegedly required to check for work-related emails before and after work and during their lunch breaks, for which they were not compensated.  If they logged the actual time they spent working, the employees were disciplined.  Finally, the employees claimed that although they were paid for part of their overtime hours, they were not paid for all of them.

The employees requested that the federal court conditionally certify the action as a collective action under the FLSA and authorize them to send notice to all current and former employees who had worked as customer service representatives for Cellco during the past three years.  Meanwhile, Cellco argued that the employees failed to meet their burden for conditional certification, in that they could not establish that they were similarly situated to the proposed class, or that Cellco had a common policy to violate its lawful policies.  Continue reading →