Case of the Month: two painters struggle to recover back pay

by Bonnie Allen-Sailer, NWJP Staff Attorney
Photo by Antonio Jimenez Alonso (freeimages.com)

Fernando’s story is a common one these days: working as a painter for the same company off and on for over 10 years, he kept long hours, and racked 60-70 hours of work each week. His day normally started at 6 a.m., when he arrived at the boss’s shop to load materials and equipment before heading out to the jobsite for the day. He’d then put in 10-11 hours of physically demanding work, cleaned up at the end, and headed back to the shop to drop off the company’s vehicle and materials. His boss, however, only paid him straight time – no overtime – for the hours he painted and, contrary to state law, nothing at all for the time spent loading and unloading the truck and traveling between the shop and jobsites.

As if that weren’t bad enough, in May 2014 the company fired Fernando with no warning and no explanation, which was not illegal per se, but certainly confusing and frustrating after Fernando gave 10 years to a company he thought cared about him. Betrayed and upset, Fernando felt he was undervalued and disrespected. Along with Juan, a co-worker who had experienced similar pay abuses in his three months at the company, Fernando decided to fight.

When NWJP contacted the company on behalf of Fernando and Juan, it was dismissive at first, arguing the workers had agreed to not be paid overtime. Based on our clients’ testimony, we knew that not to be true. But even if it were, the law does not allow workers to waive their right to overtime. So our clients kept fighting.

This past October, a year and five months after Fernando was terminated, we were able to negotiate a settlement of $42,000 for him and Juan for back pay for the past three years (the maximum time period the law would allow). Not only were Fernando and Juan brave enough to fight the company for their hard-earned pay, but also courageous in rejecting the company’s request for a confidentiality clause in the settlement agreement, making it clear that workers have the right to know and enforce their rights without restraint and the company should not be able to hide their wrongdoing.

In November, the company made the final of a series of payments to Fernando and Juan for the overtime and off-the-clock wages they were owed. The attorney’s fees we received in the case will be used to help empower other workers like Fernando and Juan so that they can stand up for, and enforce their employment rights.