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Supreme Court Looks Ready to Side with Workers Shorted on Overtime Pay

SCOTUS unlikely to block worker efforts to bring class action lawsuits against their employers.

Tyson unpaid wages supreme court

Workers who want to bring class action lawsuits for unpaid overtime wages may be getting a big break from the U.S. Supreme Court.

Last week the court heard testimony in a high-stakes dispute over the nature of class-action lawsuits. This particular case involved thousands of workers suing Tyson Foods (a corporate giant in the meatpacking industry) to compensate workers for unpaid overtime wages at an Iowa pork-processing plant.

Tyson’s big wager in this legal challenge goes beyond just getting the court to toss out the $5.8 million judgment that two lower courts have now agreed is proper for the workers; they want the Supreme Court to tighten federal rules governing class action lawsuits — a move that the court under Chief Justice John Roberts has embraced in past years.

This time, however, the justices didn’t seem to rally behind exploitative employers.

“I just don’t understand your arguments,” Justice Anthony Kennedy said to Tyson’s head lawyer, Carter Phillips. Justice Sonia Sotomayor continued the offensive: “Mr. Phillips, I’m completely at a loss as to what you’re complaining about.”

Tyson’s primary complaint is how a lower court estimated damages for nearly 3,300 workers suing for unpaid wages for “donning and doffing” activities — the time required to put on and remove safety and sanitary equipment at the beginning and end of each shift.

Some workers at the plant take have to spend a longer time at this task than others: for example, those who work on the slaughtering floor carry around more equipment and need to do extra clean up after their shift than workers on the meat-processing floor. To compensate for those discrepancies, the lower court accepted as valid a statistical average to get a ballpark figure for worker in those different classes.

Tyson claims that the figures are an improper “trial by formula” that distorts the diversity of the Tyson workers’ damages — the very method the Supreme Court criticized in another big class-action case favoring Walmart.

The Supreme Court, however, seemed unimpressed with their defense, and repeatedly cited a nearly 70-year-old case, Anderson v. Mt. Clemens, where the court established that workers can indeed devise “just and reasonable” averages for wages they never received.

“What you’re basically saying is that Mt. Clemens is completely wrong,” Sotomayor told the Tyson lawyer. “You can’t estimate your time when the employer doesn’t keep records.”

Actually, Tyson did NOT contest that it had poor records in keeping tabs on its workers’ donning-and-doffing overtime. This made it seem strange that the company now stood before the court denouncing an old precedent that helps workers precisely when their employer fails at adequate record keeping. “How much of this case turns on the fact that the employer did not keep adequate records?” Kennedy asked at one point.

By focusing on Tyson’s missteps, the Supreme Court seems to steer clear from the much more controversial issue of redefining the rules of class actions — a dangerous course that could backfire not only on the workers in the Tyson lawsuit, but also all future cases made up by workers who collectively sue their employers.

“It’s not a class issue,” Justice Elena Kagan said of the case, but rather a dispute over unpaid wages according to federal labor law, which the court may resolve according to its own 70-year-old precedent.

From those clues, it seems like organized labor and workers’ rights advocates will have reason to cheer in the weeks to come. For this case, at least, the Supreme Court doesn’t look like it will be dealing a blow to worker classes who bring their employers to court.

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Emery Reddy