March 22, 2016 – Washington – The Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled in favor of thousands of meatpacking workers at a Tyson Foods plant in Iowa who banded together and sued the company for wage theft.
A jury and later an appeals court agreed that Tyson was liable under federal and state labor law to the workers, who said they were not being paid for the time they spent “donning and doffing” equipment required for the job. The court awarded them nearly $3 million in damages.
But the company challenged the award before the high court, claiming the workers had improperly relied on a statistical average of the time they spent changing into and out of their protective gear — and arguing that they never should’ve been allowed to sue collectively in the first place.
In a 6-2 ruling, the Supreme Court rejected Tyson’s arguments and said that workers who sue as a class may rely on this kind of “statistical” or “representative evidence” on a case-by-case basis, especially if an individual worker suing alone lacks the means to prove how he or she was shorted on pay.
“If the sample could have sustained a reasonable jury finding as to hours worked in each employee’s individual action, that sample is a permissible means of establishing the employees’ hours worked in a class action,” wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and the court’s liberal wing.
This is especially true, Kennedy explained, when employers are careless in their record keeping and there’s no way for workers to prove definitively how much time they’ve been underpaid for.
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