(WASHINGTON, DC) Employees must retain the ability to collectively challenge unfair labor practices, the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) argue in an amicus brief filed today at the United States Supreme Court in Symczyk v. Genesis Healthcare Corp. 

Plaintiff Laura Symczyk, a nursing home worker, alleged that her employer was committing wage theft against her and many other similarly situated employees by failing to pay them if they did work  during their lunch period. The brief urges the Court to rule that the law does not permit companies to short-circuit workers’ ability to come together to enforce their workplace rights by offering to settle with the original plaintiff early in the case before other employees harmed by a company-wide practice have received notice of the suit or had an opportunity to join it. 

In the nursing home industry in particular, allowing employers to thwart class actions challenging wage and hour violations will mean that patient care will suffer, the brief argues. Wage and hour violations—such as requiring staff to work during meal breaks or to work overtime without compensation—are commonplace in the nursing home industry, where the workers are predominantly women earning near poverty-level wages. For this reason, Congress amended the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) in 1961 specifically to expand coverage to hospitals and nursing homes.

“This case epitomizes precisely the type of circumstances that Congress sought to change when it passed the Fair Labor Standards Act 74 years, ago,” said Marcia D. Greenberger, NWLC Co-President. “The allegations in this case are that the nursing home employees were subject to wage theft, pure and simple. If employers can shut down the legitimate legal grievances of many merely by offering to buy off one employee, it will harm both the workforce and the work the employees are conducting. In this case, the work is caring for the elderly who rely on nursing home workers for their well-being.”

Change to Win, National Consumer Voice for Quality Long Term Care, the National Consumers League, and the National Partnership for Women and Families joined the brief. These groups have a strong interest in meaningful enforcement of labor and employment laws and a particular interest in the enforcement of these laws in the nursing home industry.  

The brief argues that if employers can shut down FLSA class actions in this way, wage and hour violations will become much more difficult to challenge, as will pay discrimination, because the Equal Pay Act relies on the same enforcement mechanisms.  When enforcement of these fundamental protections is undermined, wage and hour violations are likely to worsen, as avoiding overtime payments will allow nursing homes to force workers to work longer hours.  Fatigue from long working hours has been shown through a multitude of studies to have a negative impact on patient care.

Class actions (called “collective actions” when brought under the FLSA or the Equal Pay Act) are often the only practical way for low-wage workers to enforce their workplace rights, the brief charges. A low-wage worker will rarely be able to find legal representation for an individual lawsuit, given their low income and the relatively small amount of money at issue. Proceeding in a group also can shield an individual from retaliation by an employer. Women, who make up about two-thirds of those earning minimum wage or less than minimum wage, have the most to lose if the Court erects new barriers to bringing class actions to challenge wage and hour violations or pay discrimination.

“Women’s groups, consumer groups, and labor organizations urge the Court to maintain a firewall against exploitation and retribution against those who challenge it,” said Emily Martin, NWLC Vice President and General Counsel. “Congress intended that the Fair Labor Standards Act provide meaningful protections to ensure the health and livelihoods of vulnerable workers. Those protections depend on workers retaining the ability to band together to enforce their rights.”