Reversing a $19 million judgment in favor of hourly workers at a Nebraska pork processing plant, the Eighth Circuit held that Tyson Foods was entitled to judgment as a matter of law on their collective and class action wage-hour claims. The named plaintiffs had never filed timely consents to join an FLSA collective action, and the Nebraska wage collection statute offered no recourse because Tyson never “agreed” to pay the disputed wages. Therefore, the appeals court reversed the judgment and remanded, instructing the court below to enter judgment for Tyson. In a separate decision, the appeals court reversed a $5 million judgment in favor of Tyson workers at another Nebraska plant.
Hourly Tyson employees in the kill, cut, and conversion departments of a Nebraska pork processing plant claimed that the company failed to properly compensate them for required pre- and post-shift activities. Tyson was paying for up to 24 minutes per shift–20 minutes of “K-code” time for standard pre- and post-shift tasks, and an additional 1 to 4 minutes for knife users, who had to don additional protective gear. Contending this was insufficient to cover the time spent on these duties, a group of workers filed a collective overtime action under the FLSA along with a Rule 23 class action, alleging violations of the Nebraska Wage Payment and Collection Act. The district court certified the state-law class action but, because none of the plaintiffs timely filed consents, it never certified the collective action. After granting summary judgment to the employees on most liability issues, the court held a bench trial on damages and the employer’s good-faith defense, and ruled in the employees’ favor, awarding the class nearly $19 million in compensatory and liquidated damages.
The employees cited a Nebraska Supreme Court ruling in favor of employees in their Collection Act suit against the city which, it found, had vaguely agreed to pay “the appropriate rate of pay” for their duties. But that holding was inapposite. There, the employees alleged they were misclassified and improperly paid as a result. That was not the issue here. Rather, the employees asserted that they were not paid all they were due under the FLSA for the amount of time they spent performing pre- and post-shift tasks. “That the employees might have been underpaid according to the terms of the federal statute, however, does not establish that Tyson previously had agreed to pay the compensation that they seek, such that the employees may recover under the Collection Act,” the appeals court explained. An employee “cannot use the Collection Act to enforce rights that he may possess under the FLSA.”
Also, the appeals court found no basis in the parties’ collective bargaining agreement (CBA) on which to assert an agreement to provide additional pre- and post-shift pay. Although Tyson did pay an additional 4 minutes per shift, as it did at its other plant, the CBA did not specify any compensation for the pre- and post-shift activities at issue. Also, an integration clause within the CBA warranted the presumption that the contract was complete by itself, and that there were no other agreements between the parties.
As in the other case, the employees also attempted to resort to the FLSA as the source of their entitlement to additional pre-and post-shift compensation. Again, though, the appeals court held claims for additional pay under the FLSA cannot be raised through the Nebraska Collection Act. There was no submissible case under the state statute. (Acosta v Tyson Foods, Inc., dba Tyson Fresh Meats, 8thCir, 165 LC ¶36,372.)
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