Today’s FLSA Question: Several firefighters and I discovered our fire department was violating the FLSA. We brought the errors to the chief’s attention, and he quickly made corrections. The payroll problems pre-dated his tenure as chief and it was an honest mistake, however most firefighters are owed several years back wages. The chief assured us that he would discuss this with city hall and get us the money we were owed. However, that was over eighteen months ago. The chief just informed us that we should get a lawyer in order to get the money we are owed. Apparently, he is getting nowhere with city hall. How long do we have to file an FLSA suit?
Answer: This can be a common problem. Very often there is a disconnect between the fire chief and city hall when it comes to firefighters and overtime. Remember, when it comes to the FLSA, firefighters are treated differently than most other city workers.
The typical statute of limitations for FLSA suits is 2 years. Although it can be extended to 3 years if the employer’s violations are considered willful. So, in theory, you are within that window if you decide to file a lawsuit. However, because your department corrected the errors eighteen months ago, you most likely will only be able to recoup six months of back wages. In essence — every day that you held off filing the suit — you lost money.
Most employees do not want to sue their employers. However, they do expect to be paid correctly. The decision to abandon requests for owed wages and embark in a potential contentious legal battle is typically not easy for any employee or employees. A decision that many employees put off until a point where pursuing a claim is almost pointless.
The U.S. District Court for the District of New Hampshire handed down a decision late last month that illustrates this fact. In Scarnici v. Town of Pittsburg, a former part-time police officer had part of his FLSA claims dismissed simply because he did not file his lawsuit in time.
Scarnici claimed the town failed to compensate him for all the time spent attending the police academy. There can be circumstances when police and firefighter recruits do not need to be compensated for hours spent in the training academy. However, as a general rule this time is compensable.
Unfortunately for Scarnici, the lawsuit was filed more than two years after the academy and he could not prove the town acted willfully. This resulted in the court dismissing the FLSA portion of his lawsuit, without even examining any of his claims. In fact, the lawyers that represented the town did not refute any of Scarnici’s FLSA claims, they simply argued he brought them to court too late.
There are alternatives available for employers and employees that seek to resolve FLSA errors without resorting to protracted litigation. Best practice require employees file their claims early, unless employers act quickly to remedy past FLSA violations.
Here is a copy of Scarnici v. Town of Pittsburg.