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New Danger in Wage-and-Hour Disputes: Are You Prepared?

HR Morning (02/10/12) Tim Gould

A recent court case illustrates the growing danger to employers if they retaliate against wage-and-hour complaints. Kathy Minor was a medical technologist for Virginia-based Bostwick Laboratories. She and several co-workers met with Bostwick’s chief operating officer to complain that their supervisor altered workers’ time sheets on a regular basis to avoid showing the overtime hours they’d worked. Bostwick fired Minor within a week, saying there was “too much conflict with (her) supervisors and the relationship just (wasn’t) working.”

Minor sued, alleging the company fired her for making the complaint. In court, the company said it couldn’t be liable for retaliation, because an internal, informal complaint concerning a Fair Labor Standards Act issue isn’t protected and that a formal, official claim is the only activity covered under the statute. A lower court agreed with Bostwick, but an appeals court reversed the decision. The appeals court referenced a U.S. Supreme Court decision in which it ruled that an oral complaint could be protected under the FLSA if it’s “sufficiently clear … for a reasonable employer to understand it … as an assertion of rights under the statute.”

The bottom line for employers: Even the most casual mentions of possible wage-and-hour disputes may qualify as “claims”—and any action taken to discipline the employees involved might be considered retaliation by a judge.