In many ways, federal immigration laws and various labor and employment laws, including the FLSA, may appear fundamentally at odds with each other: prohibiting work by undocumented workers on one hand, but allowing them to recover damages when they are not paid work on the other. We have examined this issue with state laws in the past on this blog, and published lengthier articles on the topic elsewhere as well. This past month, the District of Arizona confronted a damages question concerning the intersection of these laws in Vallejo v. Azteca Electrical Construction.
Since the Supreme Court's 2000 Hoffman Plastic Compounds decision, courts have wrestled with whether undocumented workers were entitled to recovery under the FLSA. For instance, in 2013, the 11th Circuit held that the Supreme Court had limited undocumented workers ability to claim prospective relief under the National Labor Relations Act for work not yet performed, but had not changed the broader definition of an "employee." The appeals court found that the FLSA definition of "employee" would include undocumented workers as well as documented ones, meaning that undocumented workers could recover back wages and overtime pay. The Arizona court faced a related question that treads closer to the line drawn by the Supreme Court in Hoffman Plastic Compounds: could undocumented workers with claims for unpaid wages and overtime also recover liquidated damages under the FLSA? Reconciling the somewhat competing interests of federal immigration laws like the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) and the FLSA, the court held that undocumented workers could recover liquidated damages.
In its opinion, the Arizona district court acknowledged that the purposes of the FLSA and the IRCA clash, but found several considerations that favored the award of liquidated damages under the FLSA. The court held that while enforcing the FLSA may somewhat undercut the IRCA, in certain ways, it nonetheless served that law by removing employers' incentive to take advantage of unauthorized workers who will work for less than the legal minimum wage. The court observed that requiring employers to comply with the FLSA for all work performed, regardless of who performs it, presents no inherent unfairness. Accordingly, the court reasoned, an employer should not be able to rely on a worker’s status to pay he/she less than what the law requires the employer to pay to whomever it hires. By extension, the FLSA's liquidated damages provisions represent compensation for work actually and already performed (thereby avoiding Hoffman Plastic Compounds), and the FLSA mandates the award of liquidated damages for violations of the FLSA except where the employer establishes both subjective and objective good faith. Accordingly, the court held that the employer could be excused from the statutory liquidated damages only if it carried its burden of establishing good faith and lack of willfulness in committing wage violations, not by merely alleging or demonstrating that the affected workers did not have work authorizations.
For employers in any industry, but particularly those in trades that rely heavily on immigrant workforces, this case should reinforce that an immigrant—whether documented or not—is still an employee. Like any other employee, federal (and state) wage and hour laws provide them with specific protections. An employee’s undocumented status, by itself, provides no defense to deficient pay practices that violate federal or state laws.