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Poultry Processors Barred from Bringing Overtime Claim Against Employers Due to Collective Bargaining Agreement in Mitchell v. JCG Industries and Koch Foods

Both the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and the Illinois Minimum Wage Law (IMWL) require that employees who work over 40 hours a week must receive overtime pay. Employees who don’t receive “time-and-a-half” pay for every hour of overtime, and who don’t meet certain exemptions, can hire an Illinois overtime lawyer and file a lawsuit to collect the wages owed. However, if the employee belongs to a union, the situation is more complicated. Unions negotiate with employers to form what are known as “collective bargaining agreements.” These agreements govern the terms of employment, such as wages, hours, breaks, and grievance procedures. Collective bargaining often falls under separate federal labor laws that — depending upon the situation — may preempt state wage laws. Federal labor laws frequently have different sets of procedures that employees must follow before they can file a wage claim.

This was the case in Mitchell v. JCG Industries and Koch Foods. The plaintiffs, Rochell Mitchell and Audrey Veasley, brought a claim in federal district court on behalf of the poultry processors at JCG and Koch. They alleged that their employers violated the FLSA and the IMWL by forcing employees to work more than 40 hours a week without overtime pay. The poultry processors were required to work five to seven days each week, and to swipe a time card at the beginning and end of each day. The plaintiffs claimed that they frequently had to work before and after their shift. This included time spent putting on and removing — or “donning and doffing” — protective clothing. Their employers would deduct a 30-minute lunch break from their pay whether they took the entire break or not.

The poultry processors belonged to a labor union and their pay and hours had been determined by a collective bargaining agreement. The agreement also addressed “donning and doffing” procedures and outlined a grievance procedure for employees to follow. The defendants tried to have the plaintiffs’ complaint dismissed. They claimed that because the plaintiffs were part of a collective bargaining agreement, their grievance was governed by federal law — specifically the Labor Management Relations Act (LMRA). The LMRA requires that employees with wage and hour complaints first follow grievance and arbitration procedures outlined in the collective bargaining agreement before filing a lawsuit. The plaintiffs argued that they did not need to follow these procedures: the LMRA only applies when it completely preempts state law, and it does not preempt when the collective bargaining agreement contradicts state law. Here, the collective bargaining agreement contradicted the IMWL’s language on “donning and doffing” equipment. Therefore, the plaintiffs could still bring a valid claim under state law.

Judge Robert Dow of the Northern District of Illinois disagreed. While one Wisconsin case, Spoerle v. Kraft Foods, Inc., showed that state law still applied when it was directly contradicted by the collective bargaining agreement, that was not the case here. The IMWL says nothing about the issue of “donning and doffing.” Therefore, there is no contradiction, and the LMRA completely preempts state law. Since that meant the plaintiffs would need to follow all of the collective bargaining procedures before filing a lawsuit, Judge Dow granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss.

The attorneys at Chicago Overtime Law Center have decades of experience litigating wage and hour cases, including overtime, vacation pay, meal breaks, and tips. We have offices conveniently located in Oakbrook Terrace and Chicago, Illinois. Contact an Evanston wage and hour lawyer at the Chicago Overtime Law Center today at 312-869-4095.