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Angiulo: Overtime Pay for Employees and Employer Obligations

Monday, August 24, 2015

 

There is a difficult cycle in our country right now where businesses are trying to make money in a challenging economic environment and lean on their workers to do more for less. From an employer's perspective, market forces make it tough to find profit and a business won't be able to pay any wages if it has to shut down.  From an employee's perspective, it can be very difficult to find full-time employment and when you do there are often very high performance demands.  While it is in everybody's interest for a business to be successful, there are also some baseline standards applied to hourly wages established in federal and state legislation.

The August 21, 2015 case of Vitali v. Reit Management & Research released by the Massachusetts Appeals Court examines how a dispute over wages can proceed.  The justices developed two major issues in this case:  1) what is, and is not, a question for a jury at trial, and 2) the nature of overtime pay for hourly workers in Massachusetts.

The Vitali case reached the Appeals Court after a trial judge allowed the employer's summary judgment motion. The quick definition of a motion for summary judgment is that it is a way for a judge to rule, before trial, that one party should win.  The catch is that in order for this type of motion to be appropriate, there must be no controversy about the facts of a case. Judges can make rulings of law based on facts that are not disputed and motions for summary judgment are the legal vehicle for getting this done.  If, however, there are questions of fact that must be decided then the matter cannot be resolved this way and will move towards trial.

The Appeals Court ruled that the allowed motion for Summary Judgment in favor of the employer was improper in this case.  The reason why is that there was real question of fact that a jury needed to decide.  That question was whether the employer knew, or had reason to know, the employee plaintiff was working overtime.  The jury needed to decide this question because to get to the answer required the weighing of conflicting explanations about what happened during the course of the plaintiff's employment.

The reason why unpaid overtime matters in Massachusetts is because of Federal and State laws that regulate the compensation of hourly workers.  In summary, if certain hourly employees work more than forty hours they must be compensated at time and a half for that extra time.  While there are certain exceptions and qualifications to this rule this is where our cultural norm of weekends off and nine to five shifts come from.  

This law is an old one and arose out of a particularly turbulent time in American history.  It is also a law that could probably use a refresher considering the list of exempt employees includes “swichboard operators in a public telephone exchange,” and “ . . . a bonafide executive, or administrative or professional person or qualified trainee for such position earning more than eighty dollars per week.”  No matter the age of its language, the State and Federal laws on the topic are almost identical and serve what the federal courts have described as remedial and humanitarian goals.

As it stands, the Vitali decision does not rule in favor of an employee or an employer.  What it does do is frame the issues that can arise about how hours are logged, how wage disputes can arise, and the practical impact of a business culture that normalizes working through lunch breaks.  There are many people that come to the United States because our country affords an opportunity to work hard for fair pay.  What the Vitali decision seems to emphasize is that a person deserves to be compensated for their work in accordance with the law.

Leonardo Angiulo is an Attorney with the firm of Glickman, Sugarman, Kneeland & Gribouski in Worcester handling legal matters across the Commonwealth. He can be reached by email at [email protected]   

 

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