Two employees sue College for unpaid overtime

Nicholas Goldrosen

This spring, one former and one current teacher at the College’s Children’s Center filed a lawsuit against the College alleging damages of $75,000 for unpaid overtime, according to documents filed in the Berkshire County Superior Court. In addition, the documents alleged retaliation against the employees, Shana Shippee and Kristen Tool, for raising that concern to the College. The College claims that the employees were properly compensated at all times and denies the allegations.

The case began in March of this year, when Shippee, who no longer works at the College, and Tool, who is still employed at the Children’s Center, filed complaints with the Fair Labor Division of the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office. Following these complaints, they then filed a suit on May 2 in Berkshire County Superior Court, which was subsequently moved by the College to the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts on Aug. 16.

Both the complaints and the lawsuit hinge upon whether or not teachers at the College’s Children’s Center, which provides early childhood education and preschool for families in the College community, are entitled to overtime under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Teachers at the College’s Children’s Center were, until December 2016, classified as exempt from federal overtime laws according to the suit. Hence, they received a salary, rather than hourly wages, and were not paid overtime for working more than 40 hours in a given week.

According to Danielle Gonzalez, the College’s director of human resources, the College uses several criteria under the law to determine what positions are exempt. “The federal government defines criteria for positions that are exempt from the obligation to pay overtime under federal law,” Gonzalez said. “Under the current regulations, a position generally is exempt from overtime regulations if the employee is paid on a salary basis; the salary is the equivalent of at least $455 per week; and the primary responsibilities involve executive, administrative or professional duties. If it doesn’t fall within one of the federal exemptions, federal law requires the college to pay overtime, which it does.” Gonzalez also noted that, on some occasions, employees may be legally exempt from overtime pay but still receive it to ensure better compensation than the law requires. “Beyond mere compliance with the law, the College also works to ensure that the classification and total compensation package are fair and equitable for the employees,” she said. “This could lead to the College treating some employees as entitled to overtime as a matter of College classification, even if federal law does not require it.”

The College, as it admits in its answer to the lawsuit filed in the district court, reclassified the teachers’ positions in December 2016 so that they would receive overtime pay. In her complaint to the attorney general’s office, obtained via public records laws, Tool writes, “[In] December 2016 my status changed from salary to hourly. I went from four weeks vacation a year to three, my sick time went from not being tracked to accrued starting at zero and my paid family leave went from being covered at 100% to being covered at 60%. I was told not to question these changes.”
In early 2018, according to Tool’s complaint, she wrote a letter demanding overtime for the time she was classified as exempt, arguing that classification was improper. At this point, she and Shippee filed the complaints with the attorney general’s office, which then wrote in response that, “we are authorizing you to pursue this matter through a private civil lawsuit.” They then filed the suit on May 2, alleging unpaid overtime as well as unspecified retaliation against Tool (and later, in an amended complaint, against Shippee too). They also claimed that they were routinely required to work more than 40 hours per week in order to meet the demands of their jobs.

In its answer to the lawsuit, filed on Sept. 7, the College denied that at any point it failed to compensate Tool and Shippee fully in accordance with federal law. The College wrote that “Plaintiffs’ claims for unpaid overtime compensation fail because Plaintiffs at all times were exempt from the FLSA’s overtime requirements under the ‘administrative’ exemption established pursuant to 29 U.S.C. § 213(a)(1) and 29 C.F.R. §541.200, et. seq.”

Additionally, the College alleged that Tool and Shippee failed to “comply with the statutory prerequisites set forth in M.G.L. ch. 149, § 150, in that Plaintiffs failed to first file a complaint with the Attorney General of the Commonwealth and either wait the requisite time prior to filing suit or receive the Attorney General’s assent to the filing of their complaint.” However, on April 24 and 25 the Massachusetts attorney general’s office sent Shippee and Tool, respectively, letters which stated, “This letter is to inform you that we are authorizing you to pursue this matter through a private civil lawsuit.”

The College claimed a variety of other affirmative defenses, including that the claims have been unduly delayed and are outside the statute of limitations. The College also alleges that at least part of the time Shippee and Tool are seeking overtime pay for was worked without the College’s knowledge or was not necessary for them to meet their job requirements. Finally, the College stated that, “any actions taken by the College in connection with Plaintiffs’ compensation were done in good faith conformance with and reliance upon” applicable regulations.

The College would not comment on the specifics of this litigation beyond their court filings. However, Gonzalez stated that she was not aware of any positions at the College ever being misclassified under the FLSA standards. “We’re not aware of this ever actually happening,” she said. “A few years ago, the Obama administration proposed expanding the categories of positions entitled to overtime by narrowing the federal exemptions. The College responded to the proposed new regulations by reviewing positions on campus that might need to be re-classified if and when the new regulations were to go into effect. Those regulations were shelved and never went into effect. Even though it was not required by law, the College did end up reclassifying some employees because it seemed like the right thing to do. The compensation of these employees went up and they began to receive overtime pay not required by federal law.”