Lawyers representing employees in class-action wage-and-hour cases often look for ways to boost the amount of damages they can collect. One of the most common ways to do that: Bring in a host of state laws to set the employer’s punishment.
That won’t work any longer in North Carolina and other Mid-Atlantic states. The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals has rejected the tactic, reasoning that the Fair Labor Standards Act () preempts state laws that were never intended to address wage-and-hour issues.
Recent case: Five years ago, a group of Sara Lee employees at the bakery’s Tarboro plant sued to be compensated for the unpaid time they spent getting in and out of their uniforms. The group numbered some 1,600.
The workers claimed that before clocking in, they had to arrive early, stand in line while a lone clerk handed out personalized uniforms, get out of their street clothes, put on the uniforms and disinfect their hands and feet.
Then they hit the time clock. After working their shifts, the employees clocked out and reversed the process. In sworn statements, many employees claimed it took them 45 minutes to an hour every day to dress and undress. The lawsuit allegedviolations since Sara Lee didn’t pay the employees to put on and take off their uniforms.
But the lawsuit asked Sara Lee to pay those damages under North Carolina contract, fraud, conversion and unfair trade practices laws—presumably because those laws don’t cap the types of damages plaintiffs can obtain.
The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals nixed that approach, sending the case back to the trial court to determine what, if anything, the workers might be due under the FLSA. (Anderson, et al., v. Sara Lee Corporation, No. 05-1091, 4th Cir., 2007)
Final note: Employers still have to comply with state wage-and-hour laws, in addition to federal ones. The court’s decision only preempted laws that weren’t designed to deal with overtime and minimum wage issues.