In recent years, there has been a veritable explosion of class actions in which the theory is that the employer has failed to pay for preliminary or postliminary “working time.”  These can be exceedingly difficult cases to defend because if the workers can establish that the activity is integral to the primary job, the violation is essentially proven and all that remains is to calculate damages. A new case (again) highlights this danger for employers.

A federal judge has granted conditional certification to a class of production workers at the wind tower manufacturing plant of a company; the workers allege that they had to perform certain off-the-clock tasks for which they were not compensated and should have been under the Fair Labor Standards Act.  The case is entitled Etter v. Trinity Structural Towers, Inc. and was filed in federal court in Iowa.

Now, notices will be sent out to the potential class members who have the ability to opt in to the case.  Although the Company has agreed to the conditional certification, it maintains that the employees are in fact not similarly situated and a class action is not appropriate.  With the recent Supreme Court holding that has enhanced the “individuality” defense that I have often preached about, the Company may have a better chance to de-certify the class at a subsequent juncture in the litigation.

The plaintiffs charge that the alleged working time was work performed prior to the start of the shifts, so-called preliminary work time.  The allegation is that the workers had to prepare for their work so they could start their shifts at the correct time, so the preliminary time is so connected to the regular job as to render that time compensable.

The Complaint charges that the Company knew its employees routinely worked more than their scheduled time or ore than 40 hours per work week because its agents and employees directed plaintiffs to arrive at least 15 minutes prior to their scheduled shift start time.”

The element of employer compulsion (if proven) is the most dangerous threat in defending this case.  Once employer compulsion is shown, the alleged work almost always becomes “real” work and then liability follows.