The U.S. Department of Labor generally takes a dim view of any attempt to negotiate away employees’ rights under the Fair Labor Standards Act (). For example, unions can’t say “no thanks” to the minimum wage or overtime pay during collective bargaining.
However, there’s a difference between losing rights through the bargaining process and accepting a settlement that resolves conflicting wage claims.
Recent case: In 2007, four lighting and rigging technicians worked on the set of a yet-to-be-released movie called “Spring Break ’83.” The “grips” first complained to their union that they hadn’t received overtime pay for working more than 40 hours per week during the filming. The union investigated, but couldn’t determine exactly how many hours each grip had worked.
To settle the matter, the union negotiated a payment based on an estimate and signed a settlement agreement. The grips received checks and cashed them.
However, they decided to sue several other companies associated with the movie, alleging they were still owed money. The companies argued that the union had already settled the claims and that should be the end of it.
The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed. It said that while unions can’t bargain away basic rights under the FLSA, this was different. There was a dispute over the number of hours worked, which was resolved thanks to a compromise based on a good faith effort to determine the correct hours. Plus, the grips accepted the money. (Martin, et al., v. Spring Break ’83 Productions, et al., No. 11-30671, 5th Cir., 2012)
Final note: Get expert legal help anytime you negotiate wages or hours. This is a tricky area of the law and not one you want to get wrong. Remember, a single mistake can lead to lengthy litigation, especially if the DOL takes up the case on behalf of all similarly situated employees.