In a huge victory for workers, employers must pay wages owed under FLSA regardless of the worker’s immigration status

In Lucas v. Jerusalem Café, LLC, Case No. 12-2170 (8th Cir. July 29, 2013), the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the Fair Labor Standards Act’s (FLSA) minimum wage requirements also protect undocumented workers.

This decision came down despite the shadow of a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Hoffman Plastic Compounds, Inc. v. NLRB, 535 U.S. 137 (2002), that denied similar back pay awards to undocumented workers under the National Labor Relations Act.  In contrast, the Eighth Circuit reasoned: “The FLSA does not allow employers to exploit any employee’s immigration status … or to profit from hiring unauthorized aliens in violation of federal law.”

The case arose from a restaurant’s employment of undocumented workers between 2007 and 2010.  The workers were paid a set weekly amount, regardless of hours worked—resulting in employees effectively paid as little as $3.90 per hour.  The workers filed suit seeking unpaid FLSA wages.  A jury awarded them over $440,000 in wages, damages and fees.  The employer appealed the verdict to the Eighth Circuit.

The Eighth Circuit dismissed the employer’s arguments and affirmed the jury’s award.  Noting at the start of its decision that the FLSA’s definition of “employee” is “the broadest … that has ever been included in any one act,” the panel saw “[no] indication that Congress meant to exclude unauthorized aliens” from that definition.

In addition, the Eighth Circuit held that Congress’ intent when enacting the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) was consistent with the FLSA’s definition of employee: “[T]he FLSA unambiguously requires that any unauthorized aliens—hired in violation of federal immigration law—be paid minimum and overtime wages.  The IRCA and FLSA together promote dignified employment conditions for those working in this country, regardless of immigration status, while firmly discouraging the employment of individuals who lack work authorization.”

Now two federal circuits—the Eighth and the Eleventh—have firmly awarded FLSA wages to undocumented workers.  Other courts can be expected to follow suit.

For further information regarding this case, or the FLSA, contact your labor law counsel.

By Lisl Duncan | August 5, 2013

Legal Developments