Rising numbers of Idaho workers are slapping employers with lawsuits that claim they were made to work overtime without being paid for it.
The pace of such lawsuits has picked up nationally, too, in concert with recession-era job shedding. About 7,000 lawsuits were filed alleging violations of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act in the year that ended in spring 2011, up from about 5,300 three years earlier. Lawsuits have more than doubled in the past 10 years.
Forty-four lawsuits alleging denial of overtime compensation and unpaid wages have been filed in Idaho in the past three and a half years, a period when Idaho’s unemployment rate climbed as high as 8.9 percent. That’s up from 28 in the three and a half years prior.
Some lawyers say that litigation isn’t likely to slow down anytime soon.
“When you don’t like your job, and the economy is strong, you focus on the future,” said Grant Burgoyne, a Boise employment lawyer who serves in the Idaho House of Representatives. “If you’re literally sitting at home and doing nothing, and you feel you’ve been wronged, your mind turns to what you can do about that.”
Ten to 15 percent of the people who walk into Burgoyne’s law office have “some kind of wage and hour issue” involving unpaid overtime, he said.
Local attorneys said the cases rarely go to court, and most of the lawsuits in Idaho have settled or been dismissed after the parties reach an agreement.
EXEMPT OR NOT?
Stefanie Magee got a job as a physician assistant for the Boise Orthopedic Clinic in 2009. Less than a year later, the clinic merged with St. Luke’s.
Like many complaints about unpaid wages, Magee’s has to do with a distinction between jobs that must be paid overtime and jobs that don’t.
Federal law carves out an “exempt” status for some executive, administrative, professional, computer and outside sales employees — generally, jobs that entail lots of control over how workers use their time. In most cases, to be exempt from overtime pay, a person’s salary must be at least $455 a week.
Magee says her job didn’t fall under the “exempt” umbrella and that she was “routinely required” to work off the clock. She says the problem was pervasive enough that all physician assistants employed by St. Luke’s since 2009 should be allowed to join in.
The health system — now Idaho’s largest private employer — denies all of Magee’s allegations. “She was an exempt employee and therefore not eligible for overtime,” said Ken Dey, spokesman for St. Luke’s.
WORKING OFF THE CLOCK
Not paying overtime to hourly employees who come in early, work over their lunch hour or stick around after they’ve clocked out is illegal. Though it may seem trivial, an extra 20 minutes a day can add up, and that kind of claim is one of the most common.
At least four Idahoans sued ITT Educational Services Inc., the education company, in 2009 and 2010, saying they worked over lunch hours and stayed late, especially in the summer, when they took calls and appointments from students and prospective students. They claimed to have worked 50 to 55 hours a week on average.
A Boise man, Robert Covert, said in his 2010 lawsuit that he was told to keep track of overtime separately from his normal work hours. He was told he wouldn’t be paid if he put overtime on his timecard, he said. Covert was promised comp time, but he rarely got it, he said. Covert said ITT owed him more than $13,000 in unpaid overtime.
Lawyers for ITT and the workers said they couldn’t discuss the claims and declined to make their clients available to comment. Covert’s case ended in a settlement.
WHY IT’S A PROBLEM
Lawsuits might be ramping up because of the recession, said lawyers who represent both sides in wage-hour cases. Some said the cases in Idaho may represent only a small portion of actual abuse. Unless several co-workers can team up in a lawsuit, a worker might not bother filing a claim.
“It can certainly be difficult for an individual employee to bring action, because the amount that’s in controversy does not justify prolonged litigation,” said Jason Risch, a Boise lawyer who has represented workers.
Burgoyne said that underpaying someone for his time doesn’t just hurt the worker, it harms other businesses.
“The business with a strong management structure, (where) the front-line supervisors are well-supported ... are put in an economic disadvantage by businesses that are cutting corners,” he said.
Daniel E. Williams, a Boise lawyer who represents plaintiffs including Magee, said managers and supervisors under pressure to hit a budget might be more tempted to cut corners.
Some employers might have a formal policy for how they classify employees — exempt from overtime or not — and “sometimes they’re right, and sometimes they’re wrong,” Williams said. They can run into trouble with the broad range of occupations that fall within a gray area, like information-technology jobs, where it’s not obvious whether they qualify for overtime.
“There’s more economic pressure. Companies want to get the work done, but they want to control their labor costs,” Williams said. “A lot of employees feel like they have to (go along with) it because it’s a tough labor market,” and they fear retaliation or losing their job.
Burgoyne said employers can plant a seed for potential lawsuits even before they hire someone. They should be honest about hours and pay during the recruitment process, he said. If they falsely paint the job as a cushy one that doesn’t require overtime work or pays handsomely, that “leads employees to feel abused and disrespected, and makes those employees somewhat more likely than average to bring legal claims,” he said.
While most unpaid overtime lawsuits in Idaho don’t explode into national cases, an Idaho man’s claim that predated the recession shows how expensive and far-reaching they can become.
This year, about 630 people got checks in the mail because Dave Hodge, who lives in Southwest Idaho, sued the defense contractor he worked for in Iraq. His claim turned into a class-action lawsuit.
Hodge had been hired in 2004 to work in Al Taq az Ddum for Lear Siegler Services Inc., which is now part of URS Corp. The heavy-equipment mechanic and ground-support equipment foreman did two tours, ending his work for the company in 2006. Midway through his time with Lear Siegler, he was earning about $15 an hour, hazard pay and other compensation.
He alleged that the company didn’t pay him overtime as promised in his contract, even though he sometimes worked more than 12 hours a day; that he didn’t get paid for working over lunch hours and breaks; and that he didn’t get paid to drive crew members back and forth to job sites.
The company agreed to a $3 million class-action settlement last year.
Hodge’s attorney said Hodge could not discuss the settlement. A spokesman for URS declined to comment.
Audrey Dutton: 377-6448, Twitter: @IDS_Audrey