When you factor in inflation, the federal minimum wage is at its lowest in many years, yet some employers continue to cheat workers out of their minimum wage and fail to pay overtime. This kind of violation is more common than people may realize, and much more can be done to protect workers from wage violations.
It's been a good month for those fighting the scourge of unpaid quote-unquote "internships," which are too often simply part-time or full-time jobs in disguise. First, NBCUniversal agreed to settle with a group of former unpaid interns for Saturday Night Live, who sued as a class for labor law and wage violations. Now this week comes news that Conde Naste, publishing empire, has also decided to settle, to the tune of 5.8 million, the class action suit brought against it by its own former interns. The Conde Nast settlement is perhaps a bit more expected: the company appears to have known it had entered into some dangerous waters in its internship practices, and decided to end the program entirely this past summer.
Since the economic crisis of 2008 and subsequent recession, we've seen a significant increase in the number of lawsuits filed by unpaid interns, alleging labor violations. As this Forbes article details, it isn't necessarily that the amount of unpaid internships has increased - these have been with us since the early 1990s. Rather, the Great Recession has significantly decreased the likelihood of obtaining a full-time position from an unpaid internship. ("As for unpaid internships, students who have them are today hardly more likely to get a job offer [37 percent] than those who have no internship at all [35 percent].") Additionally, graduates unable to find work are now being pulled into the mix, working for free and not even earning academic credit for that work.
In 2013, following rancorous disputes between the Obama Administration and congressional Republicans, the federal government partially shut down from October 1 through October 16. Note the word "partially" - since a total shutdown would have resulted in unprecedented chaos, federal employees were divided into two groups. "Non-excepted" employees performed supposedly non-essential government functions, and were told to stay home during the shutdown. "Excepted" employees - prison guards, border agents, and various other groups employed in safety and protective functions - still had to work. Unfortunately for those employees, it was unclear at the time when, exactly, they would be paid for this work.
In a decision handed down June 18, the Second Circuit, the federal appellate court covering New York State, delineated and refined exactly what constitutes a "volunteer," a category of worker excluded from the protections of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act. In a time where more and more high school and college graduates are accepting unpaid positions when they are unable to find work, the decision comes as a stark reminder of the importance of labor laws.
The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) requires employers to pay non-salaried, non-exempt employees at least a minimum hourly wage of $7.25. States can set the minimum wage higher, though the federal minimum is currently $7.25. The FLSA also requires employers to pay 150 percent of a non-salaried employee's regular compensation rate for every hour that exceeds 40 in a single work week. These wage and hour laws are meant to ensure that workers receive the compensation they earn.
In a previous post, we discussed whether employees can sue for not receiving "Wage Notices" required under New York's Wage & Hour Laws. Under the current law, employers must provide wage notices to employees upon hire and prior to February 1 of each subsequent year.
New York employees may work for several reasons -- they enjoy the job, they would be bored if not employed, etc. -- but almost all would agree that a primary reason they work is for the money. People need money to pay their bills and enjoy life, and most expect that their jobs will provide this income for them. Unfortunately, however, some employees are taken advantage of by their employers and forced to work long hours while being denied overtime. Because there are wage & hour laws that prevent this sort of behavior, employees in this situation can file a lawsuit against their employers.
It is unlikely that many patrons of the Subway sandwich shops located in New York spend much time thinking about how much those who work there are paid. As is turns out however, in many cases the workers are not being paid enough. A recent analysis of data from the Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division, found that in the course of a 13 year period beginning in 2000, Subways located throughout the nation accumulated more than 17,000 Fair Labor Standards Act violations.
Imagine trying to survive in Manhattan on the minimum wage. While it may seem impossible, it apparently can be done. When employees are paid under the minimum wage, are not paid their hourly or salaried wage, or are not paid overtime, it is a violation of New York and federal employment laws.