Floridians make up for lost overtime

The state is now home to nearly half of all federal lawsuits over wages. Why? Well, at least four reasons.

Published August 17, 2006

Overtime lawsuits were little more than a curiosity in Florida until recently.

Workers who live in the state’s “middle district” — a wide swath of territory that covers roughly half of Florida’s population, including the Tampa Bay area — filed just 43 federal wage lawsuits in 2000.

Since then, the number has exploded. Workers in the middle district filed 561 cases against employers last year alone, a 1,200 percent increase . Florida accounted for a staggering 44 percent of all federal wage suits filed in the 50 states and the District of Columbia in 2005.

And Florida is on pace for another record year of overtime suits in 2006. Just one Fort Lauderdale attorney, Richard Celler, says he hopes to file 400 to 600 overtime lawsuits this year in the state.

The numbers are evidence of a widespread migration by Florida’s employment lawyers. For decades, discrimination and harassment suits have been their bread and butter. But in recent years a number of plaintiffs firms have quietly reduced their practice of discrimination law in favor of overtime cases, a largely neglected area of federal law.

What’s driving up overtime litigation here?

- A federal agency’s bid to clarify some of the overtime rules, which introduced a new generation of business owners, lawyers and labor leaders to the statute.

- The passage of a ballot amendment to raise Florida’s minimum wage, with which some employers might not comply.

- A series of judicial rulings in federal court that made it tougher for workers to win discrimination lawsuits.

- And the recognition by a few savvy Florida law firms that the federal overtime laws might just be their next cash cow.

The appeal wasn’t obvious.

Overtime lawsuits don’t generate the huge awards discrimination cases can.

They rarely are converted to class actions. In most cases, the attorneys who file them have to negotiate their fee with the defendant, rather than simply claiming a large percentage of a client’s award.

But there’s little risk of losing a case. Most defendant companies find it’s in their long-term interest to settle rather than fight an overtime suit. The cases typically are resolved in months rather than years. And as a handful of Florida law firms have discovered, the language of the lawsuits is so boilerplate that often the only parts that need changing are the parties’ names.

The consequences are startling. In 2000, discrimination cases outnumbered overtime and other federal wage lawsuits by a 15-to-1 ratio in the middle district of Florida. Last year, wage cases surpassed discrimination suits for the first time in memory.

Pat Mangracina is part of this cutting edge.

In 2004, the Brooksville mother of six, reeling from a recent Chapter 13 bankruptcy filing with her husband, got a $7-an-hour job handling customer calls at Sims Furniture Galleries. Her work days ran from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Although she often found it necessary to eat at her desk instead of going to lunch, she says her employer automatically deducted 30 minutes from her paycheck anyway.

Shortly after getting fired for what she calls a personality conflict with one of the owners, Mangracina, now 56, says a warehouse worker at the firm suggested she consult a legal expert about the 30-minute deductions. Ultimately, she found Celler, an attorney at the widely advertised Morgan & Morgan law firm, and he filed suit on her behalf. Since then, three former co-workers have asked to join the suit.

“It was a very, very stressful job,” says one of the former co-workers, Crystal Smith, 24. “Eighty percent of the customers we dealt with were consistently angry, and it made it that much more stressful that we couldn’t get away.

They (the company) consistently encouraged us to eat lunch at our desk and keep taking calls.”
Furniture store co-owner Pat Sims declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Though many of today’s cases concern what Celler calls “hour cheating” — allegedly not paying employees properly for time worked during lunch, or for mandatory meetings held before or after hours — some challenge an employers’ classification of certain jobs as exempt from the overtime law.

Though it’s widely believed, for example, that salaried employees are not entitled to overtime, some may be, depending on how much time they spend on nonmanagerial activities.

That’s the argument made in an ongoing suit filed by two Starbucks managers in South Florida, who say they spent most their time pouring and serving coffee.

Some employers, Celler says, simply tell workers they will be fired if they file for more than 40 hours’ pay in a given week. Overall, he says, the most common overtime violators are restaurants, construction contractors, health care companies and others that employ low-wage workers.

Last month, Hillsboro Gas of Tampa settled a case by paying two former employees a total of about $10,000 apiece — $5,000 in allegedly unpaid wages, and an equal amount for damages. Their attorney received either $6,000 or $12,000. Court documents are not clear on the amount.

The growth of overtime lawsuits is not nearly as great outside Florida. While such suits rose 364 percent in Florida from 2000 to 2005, they rose 51 percent in the rest of the country.

California, which has a labor force twice Florida’s size, filed only one-tenth as many overtime suits last year. A likely explanation is that California, unlike Florida, has stronger wage laws than the federal government’s. As a result, lawyers there probably file far more suits in state court.

Brian Koji, a lawyer at Allen Norton & Blue in Tampa, says employers are tiring of what they consider to be “legal extortion” in the overtime cases. He predicts more will start fighting back soon.

Meanwhile, Celler says he’s looking closely at a 19th-century state law that says workers who put in more than 10 hours in any one day should get extra compensation for the additional time.

“It’s still on the books,” he says.

Times staff researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Scott Barancik can be reached at barancik@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8751.