Last week, a federal judge sitting in Connecticut sided with employees in awarding damages to four persons hired to clean movie theaters. In Tapia v. Mateo, et al., 3:14-cv-00247 (D. Conn. March 31, 2015, Doc. No. 19), the employees in question were expected to clean movie theaters seven days per week for a mere $40 per day (or in one case, $825 every two weeks for cleaning the theater every day). Finally, they were either fired or quit after waiting two to four weeks with no pay at all. They sued the company with the help of Attorney James Bhandary-Alexander of New Haven Legal Aid. The company did not even bother to appear to defend the lawsuit.
One interesting point in this case is that the judge allowed the plaintiffs to collect both liquidated damages under federal law and penalty damages under state law. This means that the plaintiffs were essentially awarded triple damages- for example, $600 in unpaid wages, $600 in liquidated damages under the federal law, and $600 in Connecticut law penalty damages. Under federal law, an employee who is denied wages is entitled to double the amount he is owed unless the employer can show that it acted in good faith in not paying the wages. (For example, imagine it looked at the laws and asked the Department of Labor for an opinion, but even after that it happened to get the law wrong. In that case, a court would probably not assess double damages.) Under Connecticut law, an employee must show that the employer acted “unreasonably, arbitrarily, or in bad faith” in failing to pay the wages. This is a harder test- Connecticut courts require an employee to come up with evidence that the employer acted pretty badly in order to get these penalty damages.
Connecticut courts are more and more willing to assess both liquidated damages and penalty damages against employers who fail to pay their employees in accordance with the law. The reason for awarding employees both kids of damages makes sense- they are awarded for different reasons. The federal liquidated damages are intended to compensate the employee for money he or she did not have at the time it was due- I’ve discussed these reasons previously, but they boil down to making up for late payment penalties, missed opportunities, etc. The Connecticut damages are called “penalty” damages because they are intended to discourage violations of Connecticut wage and hour law. Failing to pay an employee her wages is a serious matter. In some ways, it’s theft. Read this recent article on Wage Theft. Just as theft of anything else is punishable, so is failing to properly compensate an employee who relies on her wages.
It’s heartening to see that Connecticut courts are awarding both types of damages to unpaid employees. It’s also heartening to see great lawyers like Mr. Bhandary-Alexander working hard for employee rights. We spoke to him about the case, and he said, “Of course, we are pleased with the Court’s ruling. This type of a ruling sends a message to employers that there are consequences to pay when wage laws are violated.” Hopefully we will see more rulings like this from Connecticut courts!