Supreme Court Declines Review of Decision Allowing Undocumented Workers to Recover Unpaid Wages Under Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)
An appeals court decision granting six undocumented workers standing to recover wages owed by their employer under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) will stand after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the case on March 14.
The FLSA prescribes standards for minimum wage and overtime pay and provides employees with an avenue to recover earned but unpaid wages. The U.S. Court of Appeals in St. Louis ruled six undocumented workers from Guatemala could pursue a claim under the FLSA for unpaid wages earned while working for Jerusalem Café. The Eighth Circuit determined that “employee,” as used in the FLSA, includes individuals who are not legally authorized to work in the United States.
The owners of Jerusalem Café argued that because the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) prohibits the employment of undocumented workers, the plaintiffs were not legally entitled to the wages they sought to recover, and so lacked standing to make an FLSA claim. Rejecting this argument, the appeals court noted the IRCA specifically requires employers to comply with other federal laws, such as the FLSA.
The Court also rejected Jerusalem Café’s argument that this matter was governed by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Hoffman Plastic Compounds, Inc. v. NLRB, 535 U.S. 137 (2002). In Hoffman, the plaintiff alleged he was terminated in violation of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). He attempted to recover wages he would have been paid had he not been improperly terminated, but the plaintiff had no standing to recover future lost wages to which he was not legally entitled. However, the plaintiffs’ claims in Jerusalem Café were distinguishable because these employees were attempting to recover wages they already earned, for work already completed.
The Eighth Circuit also rejected Jerusalem Café’s argument that granting undocumented workers standing under the FLSA “would encourage successful evasion of apprehension by immigration authorities, condone prior violations of the immigration laws and encourage future violations.” It agreed with the plaintiffs that awarding earned but unpaid wages to undocumented immigrants does not create an additional violation of immigration laws. Allowing them to recover legal wages for work already completed, the Eighth Circuit said, simply assures that their employer does not gain an economic advantage by employing undocumented workers without complying with the FLSA.
Left intact is a jury verdict of $284,000 in favor of the six employees. The jury made this award despite the plaintiffs’ open disclosure of their immigration status throughout the trial.