The FLSA Applies to ALL Workers (Even Undocumented Workers)

Apparently, some employers aren’t aware the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) applies to all workers, regardless of their immigration status. The owner and manager of a Kansas City restaurant perhaps were among those who are not aware of this — or maybe they just thought they’d be able to get away with it?

The Case

restaurant workers

In the case of Lucas v. Jerusalem Cafe, LLC, the employer was accused of violating the minimum wage and overtime rules for six undocumented workers. According to evidence entered during the trial, these employees worked as much as 77 hours a week, and received as little as $3.90 an hour, paid in cash, with no overtime.

Among other evidence, the workers produced photographs and a video of themselves at work in the restaurant and food handler cards issued by the Kansas City, Missouri, Health Department. The owner claimed the photos and video actually depicted the workers “volunteering” and “posing for pictures,” and the food handler cards were only obtained so the workers could “volunteer” in the restaurant. He insisted the workers were volunteers, not employees, because he “never hired illegals.”

So what was the outcome?

Not surprisingly, the jury found in favor of the employees, awarding the plaintiffs $141,864.04 in actual damages for unpaid wages, and equal amount in liquidated damages (because the jury found the violation was willful) and $157,188.63 in legal fees and expenses. The court found the workers’ immigration status was “irrelevant.”

(Note that even if the owner’s statements about “volunteer” work had been credible, it wouldn’t have helped much, as the FLSA generally prohibits “volunteer” work for the benefit of a for-profit business.)

The Appeal

On appeal, the employers tried to argue the FLSA doesn’t apply to undocumented workers, claiming both that the workers lacked standing under the law to bring a lawsuit in the first place, and the workers were prohibited by law from receiving any back wages.

As support, they cited the 2002 Supreme Court decision in the case of Hoffman Plastic Compounds, Inc. v. NLRB. In that case, the court decided that undocumented workers could not receive back pay for the time they didn’t work after being fired for engaging in union activities protected by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). However, as the Appeals Court noted, in this case, the workers were only seeking the correct pay for the work they actually performed, not prospective relief (which, in fact, would not have been allowed under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986). Besides, the language of the FLSA is very clear that it applies to all categories of workers that are not specifically noted as being exempt — and while there are a number of exempt categories included in the law, “being undocumented” isn’t one of them.

The reason why the law applies to all workers is pretty straightforward. By enforcing minimum wage and overtime regulations for all workers, the law prevents unethical employers from benefiting by hiring undocumented workers. Otherwise, companies could hire undocumented immigrants and pay them much less than they would have to pay U.S. citizens, with no wage and hour repercussions. The company could easily undercut the prices of their competitors and still earn a hefty profit, giving the business an unfair advantage in the marketplace.

What To Do Now?

Well, the first and most obvious thing would be “don’t hire undocumented workers.” And the second would be “pay all your workers at least minimum wage, and pay those who are eligible overtime as required.”

Of course, in order to pay overtime, you have to be able to track overtime.

That’s where we can help. We’ve got the widest variety of workforce management solutions in the industry, ranging from traditional punch clocks to sophisticated electronic clocks to cutting edge software and hosted solutions. We’re sure to have a time-tracking solution that’s just right for your business!

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