Once again, the U.S. Supreme Court has made it easier for workers to go to court and claim that they were fired in retaliation for asserting their rights.
In recent years, the Court has decided a number of cases that made it easier for workers to sue if they were fired for complaining about discrimination.
But what if a worker was fired for complaining about something else? What if a worker was fired (or otherwise punished) after making a comment about the way the employer allocates tips? Or about unsafe equipment? Or overtime practices?
In the case before the Court, a Wisconsin factory worker was fired after he complained about where the company’s time clocks were located in the building. The time clocks were located such that workers had to punch in after they had put on their mandatory protective equipment, and punch out before they took the equipment off. As a result, the workers didn’t get paid for the time they spent putting on and taking off their gear.
The worker sued under a federal law called the Fair Labor Standards Act, which governs wages and hours. This law requires that hourly employees be paid for all the time they spend at work, that they get overtime pay for extra hours, and so on.
The law prohibits employers from retaliating against an employee who has “filed any complaint” about possible wage-and-hour violations.
The company argued that this rule didn’t apply here because the worker never “filed” anything with anyone – he just made a verbal complaint.
But the Court said that didn’t matter. It said a verbal complaint is good enough, as long as a reasonable employer could understand that the worker thought his rights were being violated.
That means that even a “water cooler” comment could qualify, as long as management was aware of it and the comment was about an alleged violation of the law.
The case is important because a number of other federal laws also protect workers who have “filed” a complaint. For instance, OSHA – which governs workplace safety – protects workers who “file” a complaint, so it’s likely that workers can no longer be retaliated against for making verbal complaints about equipment and safety issues.
This is a huge benefit for employees. The workers who are protected by these laws tend to be hourly employees, workers who handle dangerous equipment, and others who might be upset about their pay or conditions but have no idea how or where to file a written grievance about them.
The Court’s ruling will also benefit workers whose English is limited, and who would have particular difficulty producing a written complaint.
The decision is a warning to employers to take worker complaints seriously, no matter how informal they may seem, and if possible to document them in writing along with any steps taken in response. And of course, employers shouldn’t take disciplinary steps against a worker who has made a complaint without first speaking with an employment attorney.