Money and Gavel

The U.S. Supreme Court issued a 6-2 ruling on March 22 in favor of approximately 3,000 Tyson Food plant workers in a wage theft case. The meatpackers from an Iowa plant joined together in a class action suit against the company. That suit worked its way up through the justice system as Tyson fought the nearly $3 million the original jury determined it owed the workers.

Suit: Tyson Shorted Workers on Pay

The plaintiffs charged that the company violated both state and federal labor laws by not paying for the time they have to spend "donning and doffing" protective gear required to do their job. Although a jury and then an appeals court ruled in the workers' favor, their employer argued that they should not have been allowed to form a class to sue. Tyson also contended that the additional time for which they said they were owed was based on an average of how long it took workers put on and take off the gear.

All members of the court, with the exception of conservative Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, rejected Tyson's arguments. In writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said that "representative evidence" could be used ... if plaintiffs are unable to prove exactly how much they were shorted. He wrote that an employee "has carried out his burden if he proves that he has in fact performed work for which he was improperly compensated and if he produces sufficient evidence to show the amount and extent of that work as a matter of just and reasonable inference."

Attorney: Decision was "Important Reaffirmation" of Workers' Rights

An attorney representing the workers said he had feared that had the court agreed with Tyson's arguments, it would have been "the death knell for class actions." He called the decision "an outstanding result for ordinary Americans' ability to hold corporate actors accountable" and "an important reaffirmation of the right of workers, consumers and others to band together and enforce rights they might not otherwise be able to enforce."

When multiple workers have been similarly wronged by their employer, a class action suit is often the best, and sometimes the only, way to seek justice. An individual lawsuit may simply be unaffordable for many individual workers.

Large companies may use their considerable resources to fight a class action suit. Experienced employment law attorneys can provide guidance and support to employees seeking fair pay for their work.