In a rather new twist on the working time class action trend, Southwestern Bell Telephone Co. is being sued in a Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) collective action, where the underlying theory is that the company has denied union representatives compensation for their time performing union-related duties. The case is entitled Kayser et al. v. Southwestern Bell Telephone Company and was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri.

The workers allege that their time spent representing union members at labor-management meetings are hours worked and they are not being paid, in violation of the FLSA. The Complaint alleges that shop stewards and other functionaries of the Communications Workers of America (“CWA”) discharge a number of duties, among them the representation of union members at disciplinary, investigatory and grievance meetings. At all of these proceedings, there is a right to union representation under the National Labor Relations Act (as well as most union contracts).

The investigatory meetings, from which discipline might be imposed, are held by the company during the “accused” employee’s work time. Such meetings are for the ostensible benefit of the company so it can determine whether employee misconduct has occurred, claim the plaintiffs. On those occasions when the employee asks for union representation, the Union provides the representative. An analogous procedure is utilized when the meeting is to impose discipline on a member, hear a grievance presentation, or any other labor-management purpose. Again, the common denominator, according to the plaintiffs, is that the meetings are held on employee work time.

The employee/representative plaintiffs seek overtime, based on a theory that these hours would take them beyond the statutory threshold for overtime, i.e., 40. As a “side issue,” the complaint alleges that employees are chilled and deterred from seeking to become union functionaries because they know their compensation will suffer. The employees seek an injunction, as well as liquidated (i.e. double) damages and attorneys’ fees. The class purports to cover current/former union representatives in Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Texas.

There is a specific FLSA regulation addressing the issue of whether time spent in union matters is working time. 29 CFR 785.42. The regulation leaves that determination to “the process of collective bargaining or to the custom and practice under the collective bargaining agreement.” I daresay that the employer will defend by asserting that if this matter is not specifically addressed in the labor contract, it means the parties never intended for the time to be compensable. The case is interesting because it highlights the interplay or, some might say, the tension, between federal labor law and the FLSA.