If you have been reading my column over the past several years, then you know that Florida leads the rest of the country in the number of unpaid minimum and overtime wage claims filed in federal court under the Fair Labor Standards Act. In fact, the Southern District of Florida (Miami) is number one with more than six times the national average number of filings, and the Middle District of Florida (Tampa) is number four. FLSA wage claims are highly valued by plaintiff-side attorneys due to the mechanical nature of the law and mandatory recovery of attorney’s fees from the employer who has failed to pay proper wages.
Attorney’s fees can quickly become the driving force of the case. An employer who violates minimum wage or overtime provisions to the tune of $500 in back wages may end up paying out ten, twenty or even fifty times more than that in attorney fees if the case is not quickly resolved. In other cases, the employer’s wide application of an improper employment practice racks up significant back-pay liability, regardless of attorney fees. That’s what happened this summer to Belen Jesuit Preparatory School in Miami.
According to the US Department of Labor, the school employed 97 summer camp counselors ages 14 and 15, allowing them to work more than 40 hours per week. Under the FLSA, children ages 14 and 15 may not work more than 40 hours per week during the summer. The camp also treated camp counselors as exempt from overtime under the recreational exemption, paying them straight salaries regardless of the number of hours worked, and required counselors to attend unpaid training prior to the beginning of camp and weekly meetings during the camp which were not reflected in the time records. The DOL found these acts, too, violated the law.
As a result, the school was assessed a whopping $635,269 in back pay plus $47,578 in civil money penalties. The school has decided not to fight the back-pay but says it will contest the fine. The high liability associated with FLSA claims, even where the claims are resolved early at the administrative level, makes it critical for employers to institute appropriate preventative policies and ensure managerial compliance.