Unauthorized Aliens Protected by Federal Minimum Wage and Overtime Law

On July 29, 2013, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit issued a decision in Lucas et al. v. Jerusalem Café, LLC. The Court held that unauthorized aliens may recover unpaid and underpaid wages under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). 29 U.S.C. § 201 et seq.

Six employees of the Jerusalem Café originally filed a complaint in federal district court, alleging management willfully failed to pay minimum wage and overtime wages in violation of the FLSA. The FLSA establishes minimum wage and overtime standards for covered employers and employees. Specifically, the FLSA establishes a federal minimum wage of $7.30 per hour and requires a minimum of "time-and-a-half" for hours worked over forty per workweek. The six employees – all without employment authorization – worked at the Café between 2007 and 2010. Some of the employees worked for less than the minimum wage and all worked without receiving overtime wages. After trial, the jury found in the employees' favor. In addition to legal fees and expenses, the district court awarded the employees' $141,864.04 in actual damages for unpaid wages and $141,864.04 in liquidated damages based on the jury's finding that the employer willfully failed to pay FLSA wages. The Café subsequently moved for judgment as a matter of law, arguing that the employees – as unauthorized aliens – were not protected by the federal minimum wage and overtime law. The district court denied the motion and the Café appealed.

In its discussion, the Eighth Circuit noted that it is well-settled that employers who unlawfully hire unauthorized aliens must otherwise comply with federal employment laws, including the prescriptions of the FLSA. Indeed, the Department of Labor has taken the position that unauthorized aliens are covered by the FLSA and therefore entitled to minimum wage and overtime. The Court also made clear that the text of the FLSA unambiguously encompasses unauthorized aliens. The FLSA defines a covered "employee" as "any individual employed by an employer" (emphasis added). To be sure, the FLSA does except certain categories of workers. But the plain terms of the law contain no indication that Congress meant to exclude unauthorized aliens from the protections of the FLSA. The Court concluded, therefore, that the employees were entitled to sue the Café under the FLSA.

Because aliens – authorized or unauthorized – are protected by the FLSA, the law ensures that an employer does not take advantage of their violation by availing himself of the benefit of unauthorized employees' past labor without paying for it in accordance with minimum FLSA standards. The Court's holding explicitly recognized that excepting unauthorized aliens from the FLSA would surely frustrate the purposes of the FLSA to protect workers from substandard working conditions, reduce unfair competition for law-abiding employers, and reduce unemployment.

If you believe your employer has deprived you of fair wages or otherwise violated your employment rights in the workplace, you should contact a St. Louis employment lawyer. A copy of the opinion can be located here: http://scholar.google.com/scholar_case?case=2241531973767770204&hl=en&lr=lang_en&as_sdt=4,26,113,128,347,348&as_vis=1&oi=scholaralrt.