On Friday I was a panelist on a discussion of a successful unpaid wages case I brought on behalf of individuals who had worked as electricians and assistant electricians on construction projects in the Washington, D.C. area. The event, the annual John Burke Pro Bono Breakfast, was hosted by the Washington Lawyers’ Committee and took place at the National Press Club. I described my work on the case—in conjunction with the Lawyer’s Committee—which led to a settlement which provides for a payment of $18,755 to six electrical workers who not only had not been paid overtime for their overtime work, but who had not been paid anything at all for a significant amount of their work.
I noted my view that this case reflects a broader problem in the construction industry in the D.C. area—large, well known general contractors are effectively evading labor laws by turning a blind eye to the use of fly-by-night subcontractors and sub subcontractors who not only do not pay overtime, but sometimes do not pay their employees anything for the work they perform. This situation is exacerbated by the fact many construction firms intentionally hire individuals who do not have permission to work on the United States. Although overtime and wage payment laws apply to all employees, regardless of their legal status, companies who hire undocumented workers often do so believing, often correctly, that these individuals will be too fearful to come forward and assert their legal rights.
I also noted in my presentation that the employees in the specific case we were discussing were fortunate that they had claims in the District of Columbia. I also often litigate cases in Virginia. Under Virginia state law an employee who is simply not paid his wages by his employer can do nothing more than sue for what he should have been paid. In contrast to the situation in the District or in Maryland, a Virginia employee stiffed by his employer cannot recover attorneys’ fees or “liquidated” damages meant to punish the employer for reprehensible conduct. As a practical matter, this means that a Virginia employee often cannot do anything when his boss simply refuses to pay him—hiring an attorney would almost always be more expensive than the amount of unpaid wages that could be recovered.
In any event, at least the six individuals who I represented will be paid for their work. The Washington Lawyer’s Committee co-counseled with me on this case and, as has always been the case when I have had the opportunity to work with them, the knowledge and experience of the WLC team was critical to our success. Special thanks to Matt Handley, WLC’s Director of Litigation, Senior Staff Attorney Dennis Corkery and Workers’ Rights Clinic Coordinator Heather Kryzak.
A video of the panel discussion is available here. My remarks begin at about the 7:10 mark.