A number of years ago, I received a kind note around the holidays from my opposing counsel in a wage-hour class action, thanking me and my firm for being their “partners” in addressing employment issues.
Maybe the word he used wasn’t “partners,” but it was something close to it.
At first, I must admit that I thought he was joking.
Then I realized that this attorney, for whom I have great respect, got it.
He got that employers are not looking to violate employment laws, and that the attorneys who represent them are not trying to help their clients violate the laws.
He got that the opposite is true – employers are trying to comply with the laws, and their attorneys are trying to help them do so. No employer is hoping to get sued. Not one. And lawyers advising employers on how to violate the laws will soon be looking for new clients. Or a malpractice attorney.
The general public may not understand this notion, and, unfortunately, many employees and plaintiffs’ lawyers may not, either.
The desire of employers and their counsel to comply with the law plays out thousands of times every day, to the great benefit not just of employers, but of employees.
All management-side employment lawyers worth their salt have stories about how they worked with their clients to prevent a manager from terminating an employee’s employment, or cutting an employee’s pay, or implementing a problematic policy, by explaining the law and the potential repercussions. Some lawyers have hundreds of these stories.
“You should give the employee another chance,” is an expression that may as well be on a tape recording, it’s used that often. “Document the problem, sit down with the employee to explain how they need to do things differently, and give the employee another chance.” “If you make that change, you’re walking right into a class action that you will have difficulty defending.”
Often – usually – employers will understand and follow their counsel’s advice once distanced from the heat of the moment.
They’re looking to do the right thing, to treat their employees fairly. And, yes, to comply with the law.
It’s an approach that works in virtually every context except perhaps one – the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).
The FLSA actually works to dissuade employers from working with employees to correct many wage issues.
Why is that?
Because, unlike other employment laws, the FLSA generally doesn’t permit employers and employees to resolve wage disputes, short of the very litigation or agency complaint that neither employers nor employees really want.
The FLSA generally forbids the very amicable resolutions that would benefit both employers and employees.
And perhaps it’s time to change that.
In a perfect workplace, if employees have issues, whatever they might be, they would speak with their managers or with human resources and resolve their disputes amicably.
And, for the most part, the law not only permits them to do so, but encourages them to do so.
If employees believe they have been harassed, they can take their concerns to their employer and let their employer investigate and take corrective action, if appropriate.
If employees believe they have been discriminated against, they can share their concerns with their employer and resolve their disputes.
And if part of the resolution is a payment of some sum that the employer and employee agree to be fair, they can enter into a settlement agreement whereby those claims are resolved. That is, the employee can accept some agreed-upon sum of money and sign a release. And the employee can review the settlement agreement with his or her attorney beforehand in deciding whether the terms are fair. If not, the employee won’t sign it.
But these very same employees who are able to amicably resolve virtually any dispute with their employers generally are not allowed to do so with FLSA claims.
If employees believe they were not paid for all time they worked, they cannot simply speak with their managers or human resources personnel to resolve the issue, get the problem fixed, and move on. No, generally speaking, the only way they can resolve the issue is to file a lawsuit or a complaint with the Department of Labor (DOL).
If employees believe their overtime pay was miscalculated, the only way they and their employers can resolve the claim is by suing or going to the DOL.
If employees believe that they have been misclassified as exempt, they can’t resolve the issue with their manager or human resources personnel. No, they have to sue or file a DOL complaint.
And if employers identify an issue – an error on someone’s paycheck, or a concern that an employee might have been misclassified – the best they can do is to correct the issue and pay the employee, then sit back and hope that the employee doesn’t turn around and sue about the very issue the employer wanted to resolve, but couldn’t.
It’s a system that is built to increase litigation, often unnecessarily, at the expense of amicable resolutions of issues that may arise.
There is no good reason that employees can be trusted to resolve other employment disputes without litigation or an agency complaint, but can’t be trusted to do so with regard to wage claims.
There is no good reason why employees can be allowed to amicably resolve a race or sex discrimination concern, for instance, but the same employees can’t be allowed to resolve a wage claim – not even as part of the resolution of the race or sex discrimination concern.
The argument that an employee wouldn’t understand the nuances of the FLSA flies about as far as a turkey. The FLSA is no more nuanced than Title VII or the Americans with Disabilities Act, and employees are allowed to resolve those claims outside of litigation or an agency complaint.
And don’t forget that employees could always have an attorney review a proposed FLSA settlement before they ever enter into it. If it wasn’t fair, the attorney would surely tell the employee that and try to negotiate better terms, right?
Ultimately, it’s the employees’ decision. If they don’t like the terms of a proposed resolution of FLSA claims, they can always file suit or a DOL claim then.
If you assume that employers and employees would like to have the opportunity to try to resolve their FLSA disputes prior to litigation or a DOL claim, then it is time to amend the FLSA to give them to right to do so.
And the blueprint for what legislation could look like is easy to find – it’s right in the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). Or, more specifically, it’s right in the Older Workers Benefits Protection Act (OWBPA) amendments to the ADEA.
For reasons that remain somewhat mystifying, releases of age discrimination claims under the ADEA require specific terms that releases of other types of federal discrimination claims do not. Among other things, such releases must specifically reference the ADEA, they must advise employees that they have the right to consult with an attorney, they must provide the employee with 21 days to consider the release (or 45 days under some circumstances), and they must provide the employees with 7 days to revoke an agreement after signing.
There is no reason that the FLSA couldn’t be amended to permit private settlements along the same lines – with a requirement that the release specifically reference the FLSA, that it advise employees that they have the right to consult with an attorney (or the DOL), that they have 21 days to consider the release, and that they may revoke the release within 7 days.
Don’t like the settlement proposed by your employer? Don’t sign it.
Don’t understand it? Talk with a lawyer or the DOL.
Need time to think about it? You’ve got plenty of time.
Have second thoughts after signing the agreement? Revoke it.
If such bells and whistles are sufficient to protect older workers who wish to settle age discrimination claims, they should be sufficient to protect all employees who wish to resolve FLSA claims.
Employees would benefit from a system that would encourage employers to address wage issues – and, not incidentally, by which they might not have to share 30-40% of their settlement with lawyers.
Employers would benefit from a system that would help them address those issues while avoiding litigation – saving on paying attorney’s fees to attorneys like me.
The courts and the DOL wouldn’t be clogged with claims that cry out for resolution.
The only people who wouldn’t benefit from this proposed amendment would be the lawyers.
And if you’re worried about us lawyers, you should call a doctor.