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The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has begun investigating beauty bias at a chain of Boston coffee shops, indicating a possible growing expansion of the protections of the federal antidiscrimination laws. The investigations were reported by the Boston Globe last month, which had been alerted by the owner of the Marylou’s chain of coffee shops of the EEOC’s interviewing of its former and current employees.

According to the Boston Globe, the EEOC had not received any complaints before its investigation but had initiated it on its own. The Marylou’s chain of coffee shops is known throughout the Boston area for commercials featuring young women in pink and black shorts. The investigation supposedly was triggered by the commercials and by the fact that servers at the restaurant were also often young women in revealing clothing. While the EEOC has not commented on the issue, Marylou’s claims that the agency has been interviewing applicants, workers and customers for months, in what the coffee chain characterized as a “witch hunt.”

While the EEOC has not clarified the basis of its investigation, media commentators have set forth that the agency is targeting beauty bias at the chain. If correct, then this will be the first indication of a move by the EEOC towards a more expansive view of the protections afforded under the federal antidiscrimination laws.

The city of Scranton, Pennsylvania, in a move that has garnered national media attention, has cut all its city workers’ salaries to minimum wage, as reported last week by the New York Times.

The mayor of Scranton, Chris Doherty, made the drastic move after being alerted last week that only $5,000 remained in the economically troubled city’s bank account. Since then, the bank account balance has increased to $133,000, but that is not nearly enough for the city’s expenses for even a single day. As the New York Times reported, Scranton’s decision to unilaterally cut its workers’ pay is unprecedented, and it has expectedly met immediate resistance from the workers’ unions.

City workers received just days’ notice of the change, which is in violation of their union contracts with the city. The unions had immediately filed suit in state court for an injunction as soon as they had received notice of the mayor’s plan. The court found in their favor, forbidding the mayor from cutting the workers’ salaries. Ignoring the injunction, the mayor cut the salaries and issued checks this week for $7.25 an hour for all the city’s workers, including all the city’s firefighters, teachers and policemen, as well as the mayor himself. As a willful violation of the court’s order, the unions have formally requested the court to find the mayor in contempt, which might put him into jail.

Hole front-woman and former wife of Kurt Cobain Courtney Love has just been hit with an overtime suit in Los Angeles Superior Court this week, as reported by the San Francisco Chronicle. The suit was filed by a former administrative assistant who claims Love refused to pay wages, business expenses and overtime during her year of work for the singer. This case marks the third overtime lawsuit against a major celebrity in as many months, following the suits against Celine Dion and Sharon Stone this summer.

The complaint filed this week alleges that Courtney Love refused to pay her assistant overtime, reasonable business expenses and back wages. Jessica Labrie v. Courtney Love Cobain also sets out claims of violation of the employment contract and fraudulent misrepresentation. Labrie claims that she began work for Love in June 2010 after promises that the singer would pay her college tuition and eventually get her a job at her music management company, among other promises. Labrie claims that Love never fulfilled any of her promises and in fact harassed and discriminated against her from June 2010 to June 2011.

Labrie’s overtime claims are premised on the fact that Love had her work over 60 hours a week without paying her overtime at time and a half. Under California Labor Law §510, employers must pay their employees time and a half for all hours worked over 8 hours in a day or 40 hours in a week. There are very few exceptions to this rule, such as for workers who are independent contractors and those who are professional, managerial or outside sales representatives. As Labrie here would not be found to fit within any of these exceptions, Love probably violated the labor code in refusing to pay her overtime for her work.

San Francisco’s Tower Car Wash has agreed to reimburse its workers $500,000 to settle a wage theft suit, as reported last week in the San Francisco Chronicle. The car wash will also pay the City an additional $70,000 for attorneys’ costs and fees. The popular Mission Street car wash had been hit last August by the suit by the City and County of San Francisco after complaints by workers that they weren’t being fully paid for their hours of work. This case exposes the increasing problem of wage theft in San Francisco and across the nation, especially in these trying economic times.

The case in question, City and County of San Francisco v. Vladigor Investments, Inc., dba Tower Car Wash et al was filed last August by the City Attorney in San Francisco Superior Court on behalf of almost 100 of the car wash’s current and former employees. The complaint alleged that Tower Car Wash had a pattern and practice of refusing to pay its workers for their hours at the workplace over a 4-year period. The City alleged that workers at the car wash were required to arrive to work at pre-scheduled times each day. When they arrived, they were placed into a separate room to wait until the car wash was busy. Once the car wash was busy, they were then allowed to clock in. For many workers, their waiting time topped 5 to 6 hours each week. This time was not paid, however, although the workers were required to be there on time or face termination.

The City Attorney set out that these practices violated both California and San Francisco labor laws because the workers should have been paid for the time they spent waiting. First, these practices violated the San Francisco Minimum Wage Ordinance because the time the workers spent waiting before they were allowed to clock in lowered their hourly rate to less than the minimum wage, in violation of the statute. The City also alleged that these practices violated California overtime pay provisions because oftentimes the time spent by the workers at the car wash exceeded 8 hours a day or 40 hours a week when the waiting time was included. As these hours were not calculated by Tower Car Wash, that often left workers working over 8 hours a week without being paid their required time and a half wage. The City also set out that Tower Car Wash violated state and local ordinances in their practice of sending workers home if the wash was not busy enough. Tower Car Wash would send workers back after they waited for up to 2 or 3 hours if the wash was not busy, not allowing them to clock in for any of their time waiting. This practice is in violation of the labor laws requiring payment for all hours worked. The City set out that Tower Car Wash also violated California and San Francisco labor requirements that companies pay any workers who report to work at least a half day’s pay even if they have to send them home.

A California appeals court has just ruled to allow a Domino’s sexual harassment claim to proceed, finding that claims against a franchisor for a franchisee supervisor’s actions are not barred by an independent contractor designation. The case in question, Patterson v. Domino’s Pizza LLC, is an example of the greater protections afforded to employees in California working at franchise restaurants against harassment and intimidation at the workplace.

Patterson v. Domino’s Pizza was brought by a 16-year old former employee at a Domino’s franchise in Ventura County, California. The franchise, Domino’s Sui Juris LLC, was among one of the 9,000 such stores making up one of the largest franchise systems in the world. The employee alleged sexual harassment and assault by one of her supervisors at Sui Juris, bringing suit against the Sui Juris franchise, her supervisor and Domino’s Pizza, Inc. Sui Juris declared bankruptcy, leaving Domino’s Inc. the only defendant able to sustain a potentially massive award. The lower court entered summary judgment for Domino’s Pizza Inc., finding that as a franchisor it could not be liable for the torts of its independent contractor franchisee Sui Juris LLC. Patterson appealed, and the California appeals court reversed, finding there to be a triable issue of fact as to whether Domino’s could be liable for the torts of its franchisee Sui Juris LLC.

In finding that franchisor Domino’s Inc. could be liable for the torts of employees at its franchisee store, the California court relied on its earlier precedent for determining vicarious liability for franchisors in the state. California is unique in the nation for its flexibility in determining an independent contractor relationship for franchises. California courts will not rely on a franchisor agreement, but will instead look to the actual control a franchisor has over its franchisee in determining whether the franchisee is an independent contractor.

A California federal judge just certified an overtime pay class action suit against Office Depot last week, exposing the Fortune 500 company to perhaps millions of dollars of liability for failing to include bonus pay in its overtime calculations. The suit, Provine et al v. Office Depot Inc., pending in the Northern District of California court, concerns thousands of workers at the company who received incentive bonus pay in the form of $50 “Bravo Cards.” The federal judge has allowed the suit to continue to determine whether Office Depot violated California and federal labor laws in failing to pay overtime on the 5,940 such cards it gave out. This suit follows a similar case pending in the Central District of California court by workers at Bloomingdale’s who similarly alleged their company failed to include their commissions and other bonus pay in their overtime pay calculation. This Office Depot suit as such stands as an example of a growing issue in California labor law today of the proper way to include bonus pay in overtime calculations.

Provine et al v. Office Depot Inc. was filed by a worker at the Antioch Office Depot, just outside San Francisco, who claims the company violated California labor law and the Fair Labor Standards Act in failing to properly calculate his overtime pay. The dispute centered on Office Depot’s bonus incentive “Bravo Awards” program. In the Bravo Awards program, workers were given $50 based on a monthly lottery of eligible workers who had already received recognition for their hard work that month. As overtime pay is calculated based on a “regular rate” of pay that includes non-discretionary bonuses or commissions, Provine claimed that the $50 he was awarded as part of the program was non-discretionary and should have been included in determining his overtime pay. Provine in his suit also filed on behalf of all other workers who had received Bravo Awards that had similarly not been included in their calculation of overtime pay.

This issue of the proper calculation of bonuses in overtime pay is often overlooked, but it can be costly for both workers and employers. Another recent case in California by a worker at Bloomingdale’s, Johnmohammadi v. Bloomingdale’s, alleged a similar set of facts, citing the company’s failure to include bonus pay in determining the “regular rate” of base pay for its overtime calculations. In the Provine case, Office Depot claimed that it did not make a mistake in not including the bonus incentives in its calculation because the “Bravo Awards” bonuses were discretionary. The California federal court rejected this argument, finding that although the bonuses were discretionary in that managers were able to give them to any workers they wished who fulfilled certain criteria, the fixed amount of $50 for such awards made them no longer so.

Fortune 500 freight company Yellow Transportation Inc., now known as YRC Freight, has settled an $11 million race discrimination suit, as reported this week by the Chicago Sun-Times. This is the second such suit settled by the company in as many years, bringing the total payments by the company for race discrimination in its Chicago branches to $21 million. This suit against Yellow Transportation provides another example of the historical and enduring race discrimination within the trucking industry that is just now being addressed.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed the suit in 2009 on behalf of 324 workers at the Chicago Ridge branch of the company who they allege faced years of discrimination and harassment because of their race. The EEOC’s complaint alleged that workers at the company’s Chicago Ridge office faced daily discrimination, with hangman’s nooses, racist graffiti and insults common. The complaint also alleged that the company assigned to racial minorities more difficult and time consuming work. The company also allegedly paid racial minorities less and disciplined them more severely than non-minorities for similar infractions.

Yellow Transportation Inc., with over 28,000 employees, is one of the most dominant companies in the trucking industry. As the EEOC in its press release on the settlement noted, the historical and pervasive discrimination in the trucking industry is just now coming into the public spotlight and being addressed. With over 3.2 million truck drivers in the United States, there is still a shortage of workers in the industry, as reported by the New York Times.

Even with recent employment reports showing sluggish job growth, federal unemployment benefits are still slated to run out starting this month, as reported by the Washington Post this week. While most state unemployment benefits provide 26 weeks of unemployment compensation, Congress in response to the recession had also provided an additional 26 weeks of unemployment to workers on behalf of the federal government. From the beginning of the recession to now, Congress has reauthorized the Federal Unemployment Compensation and the Extended Benefits programs over ten times in order to ensure that most Americans have at least a full year of unemployment compensation available to them. While the last reauthorization of the federal benefits was in February, these federal benefits are slated to phase out starting July 1 and without further Congressional action will no longer be available to any worker by December 31 of this year.

What this means is that for workers still facing an unemployment rate of 8.2 percent, unchanged for months, they will no longer have an important security net for them and their families. As the New York Times reported today, the nation added just 80,000 jobs in June, doing little to address the continuing unemployment and underemployment of millions of American workers. And with little hope of an additional stimulus measure passing Congress before the end of the year, these numbers will probably remain unchanged.

The mechanics of the phase out of federal unemployment benefits is simple but devastating for workers. Starting July 1, any worker who loses their job will only be eligible for their state unemployment benefits and there will be no federal benefits available to them if they do not find a job by December 31. Those who do find a job before December 31 will then be eligible for unemployment benefits up to December 29 at a maximum. If Congress does not reauthorize the Federal Unemployment Compensation and Extended Benefits programs, all federal unemployment benefits for any workers at the end of this year will be completely phased out.

K-9 police officer dog workers have filed suit in federal court demanding overtime pay for their work spent at home training and taking care of the police canines. The case in question, Yuhouse & Wilson v. Borough of Wilikinsburg, brings a long-settled issue of overtime law again into the spotlight and demonstrates how many employers, including state and local governments, still do not take seriously some requirements of federal labor and employment law.

Yuhouse & Wilson v. Borough of Wilikinsburg was filed in federal district court by two police officers at the Wilikinsburg Borough police department who claimed they were not paid overtime by their department for the hours they spent at home cleaning, feeding, training and otherwise caring for their K-9 (canine) police dogs. The issue of paying police officers for the time spent caring for their canine dog workers is a settled issue in federal law, ever since the Supreme Court in their 1985 decision in Garcia v. San Antonio Metropolitan Transit Authority set out the requirement for local governments to pay overtime to their eligible public employees for such use of their time.

Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, all non-exempt employees are required to be paid time and a half for hours worked more than 40 in a week. In California, the requirement is even more stringent, with all hours worked over 8 in a day requiring overtime as well. For the police officers in Wilikinsburg, as with most overtime cases, the question is not whether they worked more than 40 hours in a week. It was clear from their records that they spent at least 40 hours a week at the job and the time spent with the canines at home added at least 30 minutes to their workday. Instead, the questions are whether the police officers are exempt employees and whether their training, feeding and caring for their canine dogs is properly “work” under the law.

The Grammy-Award winning singer Celine Dion has just been sued in federal court for refusing to pay overtime to workers at her $20 million Florida mansion, as reported yesterday by the New York Daily News. The suit Sturtevant v. Feeling Productions Inc. and Celine Dion, filed in the District Court of the Southern District of Florida, requests the singer and her record producer husband pay unpaid overtime wages, damages and attorneys’ costs. This suit makes Celine Dion the second high-profile celebrity to be charged with refusing to pay overtime to her workers this year, after Sharon Stone was hit by a similar suit in California last month.

The suit was filed by Keith Sturtevant, a warehouse manager for Celine Dion who also performed work duties at her Florida mansion from March 2009 to June of this year. In the complaint, Sturtevant claims that the singer categorized him as exempt from the overtime provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act by giving him the title of “warehouse manager” although he was the sole employee at the singer’s warehouse and did not have the power to hire or fire workers. Sturtevant also claims that he spent much of his time working at the singer’s mansion performing such duties as fixing ice makers, cleaning the shutters of her house, building stages and repairing kitchen appliances. He also claims that he was sent on a number of unrelated errands as well. Sturtevant claims that considering the overall character of his work duties, he was only categorized as a “manager” so that Celine Dion could avoid paying him overtime. Sturtevant also claims that other workers for Celine Dion were also miscategorized as independent contractors even though most of their work was at the singer’s mansion and was under her control. He filed suit for himself and on behalf of all these other similarly situated workers for the unpaid overtime wages he claims were due.

This suit in federal court, beyond being an embarrassment for the singer is also evidence of the continuing relevance of the issues of overtime and the categorization of independent contractors in labor and employment law today. Many employers have been miscategorizing their workers as independent contractors or otherwise exempt from the overtime laws for years, but only recently has the issue come into the spotlight as workers around the country have felt the pinch during this economic recession. The Department of Labor and the IRS have responded by warning that they will take a more aggressive stance towards those employers who wrongly categorize their workers as independent contractors. Last September the Department of Labor and the IRS signed a memorandum of understanding agreeing to work together to identify and prosecute employers who wrongly categorize their workers as independent contractors. Since then 13 states have followed suit and agreed to cooperate with the Department of Labor to supply information to identify such employers. Employers who categorize their workers as exempt managers, executives or professionals will also be carefully scrutinized.

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