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Workers’ Right to Sue Employers Over Pay, Other Conditions in Flux

Huffington Post (01/19/12) Janell Ross

In June 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that companies can hold customers to arbitration agreements in which the customers gave up their right to sue as a class to resolve problems. Employers and worker advocates interpreted that ruling to include workers who have signed similar arbitration agreements. However, the U.S. National Labor Relations Board earlier this month ruled that workers with arbitration agreements do have the right to sue as a class. NLRB says such employees are still able to sue, even with agreements in place that waive that right, because federal law gives employees the right to assertively advocate for their interests in cases of overtime pay or the federal minimum wage and other work related conditions that are set by law.

A current case on the issue involves Labor Ready, a temporary staffing company. A group of workers filed suit in 2010 contending that the company’s pay system often left them with less than the federal minimum wage and that other company practices such as charging workers for rides to their work site violated various state and federal labor laws. Labor Ready, one of several temporary services owned by Tacoma, WA-based TrueBlue Inc., does not pay workers less than the federal minimum wage, says Stacy Burke, a TrueBlue spokeswoman. Labor Ready has denied any wrongdoing. As many as 35 million American workers have signed binding arbitration agreements, says Alexander Colvin, an associate professor at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations who specializes in workplace dispute resolution.