Workers’ Rights

SCOTUS Decision Impacts Workers’ Rights

The US Supreme Court stood up for workers’ rights in its March 22, 2016 decision in Tyson Foods, Inc. v. Bouaphakeo, et al.  Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy confirmed that class action plaintiffs may prove their case using statistical or “representative” evidence.

This decision is very important for workers’ rights.  Employers sometimes do not pay workers for time they spend “donning and doffing” (putting on and removing) protective gear.  Nurses, factory workers, environmental workers and others often use protective gear.  If an employer does not keep records of unpaid work time, the workers would not be able to recover the pay they are owed.  This Supreme Court decision helps workers to prove their claim by using statistical or representative evidence.

In Tyson, the plaintiffs were employees at the defendant’s meat-processing plant.  These workers claimed that they were not paid for time they spent putting on and taking off protective gear that was necessary to safely perform their job.  Since their employer did not keep records of the time spent putting on/taking off protective gear, the plaintiffs hired an expert to observe some employees to determine the average time spent putting on/taking off their protective gear.  The defendant argued that plaintiffs could not use this sample to prove their claims on behalf of a class of similarly situated workers at the plant.

The Supreme Court found that the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (the rules that govern civil procedure in US district courts) do permit the plaintiffs’ use of the sample to prove claims on behalf of the class.  This decision is positive for workers’ rights throughout the United States.

The Court explained that, in this case and in many cases involving unpaid wages, it was proper to use the statistical sample to prove claims on behalf of a class.  Otherwise, the Court noted, the failure of the employer to maintain time records would exclude any worker at the plant from proving their claims and recovering wages. An individual worker could use this type of evidence to prove their claim and the Court found that the same evidence may be used to prove class claims.

In this ruling, the Court also clarified that one of its previous rulings regarding workers’ rights (the 2011 Wal Mart v. Dukes decision) did not prohibit the use of statistical sampling to prove class actions, as some employers had mistakenly argued.

Click here to review the Tyson v. Bouaphakeo opinion.