Q&A with Charlie Plumb
Undocumented workers gain protection under wage laws
Q: It seems inconsistent that workers who clearly violate federal immigration and income tax laws could successfully sue their employer over a wage dispute, but that's exactly how a federal court of appeals recently ruled. What happened?
A: Nine employees of a Florida-based hurricane shutter company filed a lawsuit against their employer, as well as its president and two of its directors, for failure to pay overtime wages owed to them. During the trial, the employer established that some of the plaintiffs had violated federal law — specifically, two had failed to accurately report earned income to the IRS, and one was an undocumented alien who had used a false Social Security number to apply for his job. In light of these facts, the company asserted that workers who violate federal law shouldn't be able to recover damages resulting from their wrongdoing, including collecting an award under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act. The appeals court, however, rejected this argument.
Q: What was the basis of the court's ruling?
A: The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit ruled the plaintiffs were entitled to overtime pay because they met the statutory definition of an “employee” under the FLSA (Federal Labor Standards Act), and because the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 doesn't exclude undocumented aliens from the protections of federal wage and hour laws.
Q: What should employers take away from this decision?
A: As a starting point, all employers should do their homework when it comes to completing I-9 forms and gathering information to ensure they are only hiring individuals who are authorized to work in the United States. In those cases where an employer inadvertently hires someone who is not authorized to work, while it may mean an end to their current job, the undocumented alien is nonetheless entitled to be paid for any work they have already performed according to our federal employment laws.
PAULA BURKES, BUSINESS WRITER