As I bring out my cold cut sandwich made from the remains of Thursday’s turkey and settle in at my home office computer to write today’s Tennessee Employment Lawyer blog, I can’t help but think about the recent Department of Labor lawsuit against West Liberty Foods and Henry’s Turkey Service, an Iowa company, being sued for underpaying their mentally handicapped workers.
Back in February, officers raided an old schoolhouse where 21 men known as “Henry Boys” had been living and working for 35 years for Henry’s Turkey Service cleaning and gutting turkeys. Last Wednesday, the Department of Labor filed suit against West Liberty Foods who contracted and allegedly oversaw operations of the processing plant. This would include the decision to pay these workers a wage of $65 a month regardless of hours worked, much less pay appropriate overtime.
The Department’s wage and hour lawsuit alleges, in addition to paying less than standard minimum wage and failing to pay overtime rates, that Henry’s Turkey Service additionally failed to accurate books. This failure to keep accurate books hit another business hard this week, this time a local restaurant chain in the Great Lakes region.
News of stolen wages is no shocker in the restaurant business, as numerous tip pooling and other underpaid restaurant wage lawsuits prove, but last week in Michigan, Oriental Forest restaurants were ordered to pay over $2M in unpaid minimum wage and overtime pay and damages owed to 129 workers of the local chain’s five restaurants.
Though only two of the original five restaurants remains in operation, Li Jin Yang and Dong Lin, the wife and husband owners, were ordered to pay $2,030,430 in unpaid wages and liquidated damages following an investigation by the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division.
Specifically, the court found that $1,015,215 in wages went unpaid in the three-year span allowed by law and ordered that an equal amount be paid to the restaurant workers as liquidated damages. Like allegations awaiting judgment in the turkey workers’ lawsuit, the court found the Michigan restaurant’s owners paid less than time and one-half for overtime, paid less than federal minimum wage, and failed to keep adequate and accurate pay records. Individual payments to workers for unpaid wages range from a few hundred dollars to as much as $96,000.
The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) requires that employees receive at least the federal minimum wage of $7.25 for all hours worked, with overtime’s time and one-half regular rate beginning with the first hour worked over 40 in a work week. Employers must also maintain accurate time and payroll records.
With unemployment at an all time highs across the nation, government agencies and employment lawyers are seeing many reports of workers accepting jobs that don’t pay minimum wage. A recent survey of workers in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles found that a quarter of these cities’ workers were making less than minimum wage, mostly in garment manufacturing, restaurants, and construction.
Recently, the Department of Labor has aggressively begun pursuing these minimum wage cases, which help maintain the nation’s standard of pay for all wages and salaries, and has hired more enforcement officers.