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Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Class labor action fails on appeal, but highlights persistent failure to afford living wage for U.S. workers

Boston, Mass. (from Pixabay by StockSnap, licensed)
Notwithstanding its failure, a class labor action dismissed by the Massachusetts Appeals Court highlights the persistent legal norms that keep U.S. workers under compensated.

Siew-Mey Tam worked as a property manager for Federal Management Co. (FMC) in Boston, managing Mason Place, a 127-unit, subsidized-housing community in the heart of the city.  Dissatisfied with her terms of employment, Tam became the lead plaintiff in a class action accusing FMC of violating wage-and-hour laws.  The class was certified in 2015.

Among the issues in the case was FMC's classification of Tam and others as exempt administrative employees.  A company's ability to exploit so-called "salaried" workers with responsibilities that defy the number of work hours in the week facilitates subversion of already paltry U.S. minimum wages and evasion of overtime pay.  This is another in a genus of "misclassification" problems that form our bleak landscape of employment rights and was part of the back-and-forth tug of regulatory might in the Obama and Trump administrations.

In 2016, the threshold for overtime exemption under Department of Labor regulations pursuant to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) was $455 per week, or $23,660 per year.  For comparison, the intransigent federal minimum wage is, and has been since 2009, $7.25 per hour, or up to $15,080 per year.  The Massachusetts minimum wage in 2016 was $10 per hour, or up to $20,800 per year.  Having been unable to push a federal minimum-wage hike through Congress, the Obama Administration announced a doubling of the exemption threshold, to be effective December 1, 2016, from $455 per week, to $913 per week, or $47,476 per year, with automatic upward adjustments to follow beginning in 2020.

From the Economic Policy Institute
But that increase never happened.  A Texas judge blocked the regulations in November 2016 (N.Y. Times), and the Trump Administration in 2017 junked the upgrade.  The threshold remained at $455 for three more years, until the Trump Administration promulgated a more modest increase to $684 per week, or $35,568 per year, which took effect in 2020.  While the federal minimum wage remains at $7.25, the Massachusetts minimum wage has crept upward, in 2021 to $14.00 per hour, or up to $29,120, on its way to a living wage.

In the instant case, according to the court, "[i]t was uncontested that Tam worked more than 40 hours per week but generally was not paid overtime. Instead, the dispute was whether the nature of Tam's job meant that she was an exempt administrative employee to whom overtime pay was not due."  FMC maintained that in addition to a base salary in excess of the $455 threshold, Tam's "primary duty include[d] the exercise of discretion and independent judgment with respect to matters of significance," which regulations also require for "administrative" exemption.

Most of the appellate decision in Tam v. FMC concerns a deposition in 2016, in which, it seems from the court's description, the plaintiffs' case self-destructed.  Tam's answers supported the FMC position that she exercised considerable authority over the property.  Moreover, "Tam gave other answers that raised serious concerns about how the case and a related discrimination case against [FMC] were being litigated," pointing to inconsistencies in discovery responses.

"For example," the court observed, "confronted with a factual misstatement in her interrogatory answers filed in the [related] discrimination case, Tam attempted to address the misstatement by explaining that she had signed the answers without actually reading them, because she 'trust[ed her] lawyer.'"  The deposition was especially damaging because Tam was the lead plaintiff for the class.

The Appeals Court affirmed summary judgment and an award of pretrial costs against Tam and a co-plainitff, Raymond.  A collateral action against FMC remains pending.

Included in the affirmance was the dismissal of a separate retaliation claim by Raymond.

A former property manager for FMC, Raymond alleged that she was fired for her wage-and-hour complaints, a retaliation that would violate Massachusetts law.  The courts ruled that Raymond's claim came up short because she did not sufficiently notify FMC of the legal basis of her discontent.  An employee need not necessarily invoke a specific statute, the Appeals Court held, but the court characterized Raymond's objections as closer to "abstract grumblings" (quoting precedent) than to a reasonably understandable assertion of statutory rights.  That's a cautionary tale for low-wage employees who might not understand the legal nuances of classification and take as true an employer's declaration of what the law is.

The real shame of the case is what it reveals about the deplorable state of U.S. labor rights.  According to MIT, a living wage for a Boston worker is $670 per week, or $34,819 per year.  That's well more than the exemption threshold before 2020 and just about equivalent to the threshold now.  An exempt employee can be expected to work more than 40 hours per week, so can't hold down a second job—even assuming that it would be civilized to expect that, which it's not.

So the present regime sets an expectation that a worker earning a minimum living wage will work longer than a 40-hour week.  One might expect that administrative employees working more than 40 hours per week would do a little better than a living wage.  Meanwhile, hourly workers still fall far short.  And the per annum numbers I've used here assume 2,080 working hours per year: no break.  Federal law requires no paid vacation time.

The FLSA has been around since 1938.  It's at least arguable that the proceeds of industrialization and technology should be that people don't have to work as hard to survive.  Even by the time the FLSA turns 100, will employees working full time in the shining city on a hill be able to meet basic needs?

The case is Tam v. Federal Management Co., No. 19-P-1332 (Mass. App. Ct. Jan. 6, 2021).  Justice James R. Milkey authored the opinion of a unanimous panel that also comprised Justices Blake and Henry. 

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