Too many employers make a common mistake when deciding whether an employee is entitled to overtime under the Fair Labor Standards Act (
Even worse, they sometimes slap an impressive-sounding title on a position they suspect is actually hourly, hoping employees and the U.S. Labor Department will assume the position is exempt.
It won’t work. Lawyers who represent employees learned long ago to look beyond titles to the actual job. Now they’re also looking at related jobs to see if they can include even more employees in their lawsuits—ideally, everyone who performs similar tasks.
What counts is the job itself, and the tasks actually being performed by the jobholder. The title doesn’t count. Otherwise, everyone would be an “account manager” or a “coordinator,” and no one would be an hourly employee.
Recent case: Jeanine Ingram sued her employer, ONE Bus, and its parent company, Coach USA, for unpaid overtime. She alleged that she and other employees across several transportation subsidiaries regularly worked more than 40 hours per week. Ingram asked that all others who held jobs similar to hers be included in the lawsuit. That way, of course, the total tab for damages would grow because the case would no longer be about just Ingram.
The court looked at Ingram’s job title and job description and took extensive testimony from employees, managers and others. Her employer classified Ingram as an “operations supervisor,” and many others were classified as “bus dispatchers.” Their jobs shared common duties, including sitting at the dispatch window; making sure drivers were in uniform, sober and otherwise capable of driving; answering incoming calls; handling customer complaints; distributing and collecting time sheets; and checking driver logs. Neither position, however, included hiring and firing powers or check-signing responsibilities.
The court said all operations supervisors and bus dispatchers were performing the same job and could be part of the same overtime lawsuit. Despite Ingram’s more impressive job title, she was still essentially a bus dispatcher. The court allowed her to bring into the lawsuit everyone who held a similar job and wanted to sue. (Ingram v. Coach USA, No. 06-3425, DC NJ, 2008)
Final note: By including others in the lawsuit, Ingram will be able to raise the stakes significantly. No longer is the case about her unpaid overtime. If she can add just 10 dispatchers to the lawsuit, the stakes grow tremendously. While her tab might be no more than a few thousand dollars, the figure—increased tenfold—suddenly becomes a large potential liability for Coach USA. Legal costs likewise mushroom, as more claims mean more testimonies, more record production and more opportunities for uncovering additional mistakes.
Advice: Take cases like this as a warning—double-check how you have classified employees. If in doubt, call in an experienced labor attorney. The legal fees are worth it.
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