Federal Minimum Wage Law Protects Workers in Public Assistance Programs, According to New York’s Highest Court

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), 29 U.S.C. § 201 et seq., requires payment of a minimum wage. Violations of this provision can take many forms, including deductions from a person’s compensation that result in a total net pay below the minimum wage for the amount of work performed. Compensation is also not limited to wages, as demonstrated in a decision from late 2015 from the New York Court of Appeals. The court ruled that an individual who worked for the city in exchange for public benefits was an “employee” within the meaning of FLSA, allowing his claims for minimum wage violations to go forward. Matter of Carver v. State of New York, 26 N.Y.3d 272 (2015). The incident that gave rise to the lawsuit involved the seizure of the plaintiff’s lottery winnings by the state under a law allowing reimbursement for benefits paid out in the previous decade. The plaintiff alleged that this reduced his overall compensation to below minimum wage.

In order to prevail in a claim under FLSA, a plaintiff must establish that they have standing as an employee. FLSA’s definition of “employee” is simply “any individual employed by an employer.” 29 U.S.C. § 203(e)(1). The law defines “employer” to include public agencies. Not all employees, however, are entitled to protection under FLSA and other federal employment laws. Exemptions identified by FLSA include individuals “employed in a bona fide executive, administrative, or professional capacity”; certain types of agricultural and food industry workers; and various other jobs. Id. at § 213(a).

The plaintiff in Carver worked almost full-time for the City of New York for about seven years, in exchange for public assistance under a state program. Benefits included cash payments of $176 every two weeks and food stamps. About seven years after he left the work program, he won $10,000 in the lottery. He filed suit against the State of New York when it seized 50 percent of the winnings.

The defendant essentially argued that the plaintiff was not a type of worker considered an “employee” under FLSA. The U.S. Supreme Court, however, has held that the list of employees exempted from FLSA protection is “narrow and specific,” and employees not clearly included within an exemption are protected. Carver, 26 N.Y.3d at 278-79, quoting Powell v. United States Cartridge Co., 339 US 497, 517 (1950). Whether a person is an “employee” or not, for the purposes of FLSA, is based on a review of the “economic realities” of the situation, rather than the “technical concepts of the relationship” between the employer and the alleged employee. Carver at 279.

Courts also give “considerable weight” to the official interpretation of the administrative agency responsible for enforcing a particular statute. Carver at 280, quoting Tony & Susan Alamo Found. v. Sec’y of Labor, 471 US 290, 297 (1985). The U.S. Department of Labor, according to the Carver court, has construed FLSA’s definition of “employee” to include public assistance recipients in government-administered work programs. Multiple federal court rulings have held that other federal employment statutes, such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, apply to WEP workers in New York. United States v. City of New York, 359 F.3d 83 (2d Cir 2004). Based on these considerations, the court ruled that the plaintiff was an “employee” under FLSA.

If you need to speak with a wage law attorney in New Jersey or New York, contact the Resnick Law Group online, at 973-781-1204, or at (646) 867-7997.

More Blog Posts:

Proposed Jersey City Ordinance Would Mandate Minimum Work Week for Certain Employees, The New Jersey Employment Attorney Blog, June 20, 2016

Lawsuit Against New Jersey Convenience Store Franchisee Claims Minimum Wage, Overtime Violations, The New Jersey Employment Attorney Blog, May 9, 2016

U.S. Department of Labor Issues Guidelines on “Joint Employment” Under Federal Law, The New Jersey Employment Attorney Blog, April 5, 2016

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