Last week we reported on the Illinois company that admitted to firing two employees because they requested that they not be required to deliver alcohol as part of their truck driving jobs as a religious accommodation. The company acknowledged that it could have juggled some drivers’ routes to do this, but said it wasn’t aware that it was obligated to do so. This case is scheduled soon for trial in the Central District Federal Court in Illinois and we’ll see if that story mitigates damages.
The 5th Circuit didn’t buy a similar argument by an employer recently in a wage case. In Miles v. HSC-Hopson Services Company, the plaintiff filed a claim for unpaid overtime because the employer failed to count as time worked the time that the plaintiff spent traveling from the employer’s garage or warehouse to work sites at the beginning of the day and the reverse trip at the end of the day. In Miles, the employer claimed that he had relied on an unspecified website containing “e-laws” on wage and hour matters to develop its pay practice and therefore should only be liable for back pay for two years as opposed to three years with a finding of reckless disregard for the law. One problem that the employer could not overcome, though, is it could not recall what the name of the website was or the actual advice that it gave (and obviously if it was reasonable to rely on it). As you might imagine, the Miles court found that the employer acted with reckless disregard.
Employment laws can be tricky. Employers should never rely on their gut feeling or information in response to a simple Google search as to their rights and obligations under the law. Good faith or the absence of “reckless disregard” can be demonstrated by consulting with counsel, reviewing the DOL or EEOC websites, calling the local EEOC or DOL offices or attending a seminar and documenting that this was the source of the advice on which a policy or practice was based. Mistakes can happen, but to avoid the most serious of legal penalties, employers have to show that they took reasonable steps to comply with the law.