Judge Rules CBA Does Not Supersede the FLSA, But in Some Circumstances Arbitration Must Come First

Can the terms and conditions of a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) supersede the FLSA’s basic overtime requirements? That was one of several questions answered recently by a federal judge in Illinois. District Court Judge J. Phil Gilbert ruled that an FLSA lawsuit filed by a group of 911 dispatchers that work for the St. Clair County Emergency Management Association can continue despite the county’s objections.

The dispatchers made two basic claims in their lawsuit filed in federal court last summer. First, the county paid dispatchers’ overtime after they worked more than eighty (80) hours in a two-week pay period, as opposed to more than forty (40) hours in a single workweek. County dispatchers regularly worked thirty-six (36) hours in one week, which was followed by forty-eight (48) hours the following week. Second, the county automatically deducted an unpaid thirty-minute “break” from the dispatcher’s workday even when the dispatchers were not “completely relieved” of their duties during the break period.

The county rebutted with two arguments supporting the lawsuits dismissal. First, that the terms of the dispatchers’ CBA should control and not the FLSA. Essentially, the dispatchers agreed and negotiated the terms and conditions of employment (including hours worked).  Second, the dispatchers should have filed a grievance and not a federal lawsuit if there was a violation of the contract.

In the end, the judge found that the FLSA requires overtime pay for all hours worked over forty (40) in a seven (7) day workweek, regardless of the contract’s language. In other words, that claim can continue to the next phase of litigation. However, the judge found that the dispatchers’ claims regarding unpaid break periods was best left to the CBA’s grievance procedure to resolve. As a result, the judge dismissed that claim from the dispatchers’ lawsuit “without prejudice.” As a result of this ruling, the dispatchers must engage in grievance arbitration prior to filing a federal lawsuit [over the break time issue].

This ruling serves as a prime example of how complicated wage and hour litigation can get. Did I mention that the dispatchers also alleged violations of Illinois Minimum Wage Law as well? Here is a copy of the dispatchers’ initial complaint and the most recent ruling.

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