The U.S. Supreme Court is hard to predict. In recent years, the court has often been divided and the recent, untimely death of Justice Antonin Scalia worries both labor and big business. This all makes yesterday’s win by workers against Tyson Foods a huge victory for those workers improperly denied overtime pay.
The big victory before the United States Supreme Court had a humble beginning. A group of workers in a meat packing plant located in Storm Lake, Iowa claimed that Tyson was improperly denying them overtime.
Workers in meat packing plants are required to wear safety equipment. Depending on the specific task, it can take quite a bit of time to put on and take off that equipment. That process is called “donning” and “doffing.” Spending a 10 or 20 minutes to put on safety equipment doesn’t sound like much but do it twice a day (more if it is removed for meal breaks) and the time really adds up.
The workers sued and claimed they should be paid for that time. When Tyson knew it might lose, it fell back on a different argument. They claimed workers shouldn’t get paid the overtime because it was impossible to tell how long it took each worker to don and doff. Absent very detailed records, they wanted the claims dismissed.
Think about it, I might take 12 minutes to put on my gear but it may take you 20. Because every worker was different and no one had accurate records, Tyson wanted the case tossed. Is it reasonable for workers to carry around stop watches and figure out how much time they lose each day? Of course not!
Unfortunately, recent victories by big business in the courts have drastically cut back on class actions. Collective and class cases are important because individual cases become too costly for workers. A lawyer may not be interested in a case where someone says they were underpaid by a few thousand dollars of lost overtime. Multiply that by 3000 workers, however, and the case becomes economically viable.
Employers know this and therefore try to keep the courts from allowing class actions. They argued that each case was different and therefore each worker would have to sue separately. (They knew that few would.)
The workers decided to use a statistical analysis and an expert who filmed workers donning and doffing their gear 744 times. From those observations, the expert witness was able to determine an average time loss for workers required to wear protective gear.
A jury originally heard the case and agreed with the workers. The award was $5.8 million dollars. Under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, the workers get double damages.
Tyson wasn’t happy with the award or the court’s decision to allow statistical sampling. They appealed the decision to a federal appeals court in St. Louis and lost again. Undeterred, they appealed again, this time to the Supreme Court.
In a 6 to 2 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the jury’s verdict and award.
We were somewhat worried about how the court might rule. In 2011, the court tossed a discrimination suit brought by 1.5 million female Wal-Mart workers that was based on statistical data. Yesterday’s decision suggests that the court is no longer going to constrict the right of workers and consumers to bring class actions or use statistical data.
Even though the case did not involve Wal-Mart, they and their cronies (U.S. Chamber of Commerce, National Association of Manufacturers, Dow Chemical and DRI – the Voice of the Defense Bar) came to the aid of Tyson and filed “friend of the court” briefs.
All of their collective efforts failed.
In ruling for the workers, Justice Kennedy said, “Whether a representative sample may be used to establish classwide liability will depend on the purpose for which the sample is being introduced and on the underlying cause of action.” In other words, each case must sink or swim on its own merits. The court refused to issue a blanket order disallowing statistical evidence in FLSA wage and overtime cases.
FLSA and Overtime
The Fair Labor Standards Act mandates employers to pay employees for incidental activities that are “integral and indispensable” to their regular work and (2) to keep track of the “wages, hours, and other conditions and practices of employment.” If you are required to do sidework, clean up work areas, answer calls after hours or put away tools and you are not getting paid for those activities, you may have a valid FLSA claim.
Under the Act, employees can earn double lost wages or overtime pay and employers can be made to pay the worker’s legal fees. There are also anti-retaliation provisions designed to protect workers who make claims.
Because of the mandatory legal fees for successful workers, we accept FLSA, overtime and other wage theft cases on a contingent fee basis. If you don’t recover money, we do not get paid.
Interested in learning more? Contact attorney Brian Mahany at or by telephone at (414) 704-6731. You can also visit our FLSA overtime information page here. All inquiries kept strictly confidential.
MahanyLaw – America’s Wage Theft and Fraud Recovery Lawyers
*Note – We typically handle cases for groups of workers. If you have a single case – that is, just you – please call us anyway. We often take individual cases. We want to help you get what is rightfully yours!