Norwalk schools wage theft lawsuit moves to federal court
NORWALK — Days after a civil case alleging wage theft against the city’s public schools was withdrawn from state court, two new related suits have been filed in federal court.
On Thursday, documents were filed on behalf of two Norwalk school employees — Barbara Riley, a para-educator, and Hope Coles, an administrative secretary — alleging the district failed to fully pay them for their work, in breach of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).
“Both named representatives have different FLSA allegations,” said Ryan Daugherty, the New York-based attorney representing the school employees. “One (Coles) is alleging her hours were manually reduced by the district and the other (Riley) is alleging that she wasn’t paid her overtime premium for the hours worked over 40.”
According to Riley’s suit, she worked full-time in the district as a para-educator but picked up extra hours through the district’s After the School program. During weeks in which she worked more than 40 hours, she should have been eligible for time-and-a-half. But over the course of several months in 2017, the suit alleges, Riley was denied more than $1,000 in time-and-a-half pay that she was owed. Over a broader period, Daugherty said he believed the amount could be larger.
The second suit, involving Coles, a Ponus Ridge Middle School employee, more closely mirrors the class action suit filed in state court in July. The suit alleges that administrative secretaries, Coles included, were instructed to alter the time cards of non-exempt employees who logged more than 37.5 hours a week, so that overtime would not be owed.
According to Deputy Corporation Counsel Jeff Spahr, a directive was issued by Ponus Ridge Principal Damon Lewis in winter 2016 advising that employees should not work overtime. The instructions came as the result of a budget overrun.
“They were informed that they must make sure that they punched out (and in) in a timely fashion,” Spahr wrote in an email Tuesday. “They were never instructed to work past their deadline and to fix the books to remove any overtime work justly earned.”
The suit, however, alleges that administrative secretaries, who input staff timecards, were ordered to adjust the hours of as many as 10 to 15 employees a week. According to Daugherty, nearly 100 Norwalk Public School employees have opted in to the collective action suits, which allow employees to jointly sue an employer.
Moving the suits from state to federal court was a tactical decision, Daugherty said.
“Federal statutes provide more protection to employees and the federal court process has streamlined these FLSA complaints and have experience dealing with complicated FLSA matters,” Daugherty said.
According to Spahr, filing a lawsuit at all was inappropriate. He has argued Coles and Riley should have filed an internal grievance as outlined in the collective bargaining agreement ratified by the Norwalk Federation of Educational Personnel, the union representing non-exempt staff, of which Coles is president.
“If they believe that there have been errors in their pay, we would be happy to sit down with them and discuss this as provided for in the contract,” Spahr said. “You have to ask if this is about proper pay or profiteering.”
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