Massachusetts Gives Another Nod to All Massachusetts Employees in Wage-and-Hour Context (But Especially Agricultural Employees)

For as long as I’ve practiced law, courts across the country, both state and federal, have uniformly held that wage-and-hour laws should be construed broadly to protect employees and that exemptions from those laws should be construed narrowly to protect employees.

In practice this had important consequences, sort of like the ‘tie goes to the runner’ idea in baseball. If it was a ‘coin flip’ as to whether an employee was entitled to overtime, or to pay for working off the clock before or after her shift, the above-listed concepts generally meant that they employee would win. That’s because the laws at issue had to be interpreted and applied in a way that protected employees (i.e., paid them overtime). That is, all doubts as to their coverage / application had to resolved in favor of the employee.

This changed in April 2018, when Justice Clarence Thomas, in Encino Motorcars, LLC v. Navarro, rejected the idea that the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) should be construed in an employee-friendly manner and that the exemptions to that statute should be narrowly construed. Instead, according to Justice Thomas, the statute should be given a ‘fair reading’ because the FLSA gives no ‘textual indication’ that exemptions should be narrowly construed. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented, noting that this decision ‘unsettles more than half a century of our precedent.’

The Massachusetts Overtime Act requires employers to pay time-and-half to employees for all hours over 40 in a workweek, unless those employees fall into one or more statutory exemptions. One of those exemptions applies to employees “engaged in agriculture and farming on a farm.” Employers do not need to pay overtime to employees who fall into that category.

On March 15, 2019 the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, in Arias-Villano v .Chang & Sons Enterprises, Inc., was asked to determine if the ‘agricultural’ exemption to the Massachusetts Overtime Law applied to employees who cleaned, inspected, sorted, weighed, and packaged bean sprouts. The Court held that the ‘agricultural’ exemption to the Massachusetts Overtime Law does not apply to these workers because they are involved in post-harvesting activities. In doing so, the Court focused on the meaning of the phrase ‘agriculture and farming’ and held that the exemption did not apply to the post-harvesting work performed by employees. So employees in Massachusetts who are involved in post-harvesting activities, even those that relate to agricultural / farmed products, are entitled to overtime.

On its face, Arias-Villano appears to have a limited impact. To put it mildly, the ‘agriculture’ exemption is not one of the more hotly litigated areas of wage-and-hour law in Massachusetts. But that’s not the limit of Arias-Villano’s impact, because in conducting its analysis the SJC made it clear that it would continue to analyze cases brought under the Massachusetts Wage Act as cases were analyzed under the Fair Labor Standards Act prior to Encino Motorcars. In fact, the SJC specifically rejected the rationale in Encino Motorcars, stating: ‘Our primary duty is to interpret a statute in accordance with the intent of the Legislature. At the outset, we note that, as a remedial measure, the overtime statute must be broadly construed in light of its purpose, which is in part to compensate for a long work week. Any exemptions are therefore to be construed narrowly.’

In sum, Encino Motorcars will apply to claims brought under the Fair Labor Standards Act. And, to be sure, some claims must be brought under that statute because of specific exemptions that appear in the Massachusetts Overtime Act that do not appear in the Fair Labor Standards Act. However, the vast majority of employees seeking unpaid overtime in Massachusetts will be able to proceed under the Massachusetts Overtime Act and will be able to avoid the pro-employer holding of Encino Motorcars.

Steffans Legal has considerable experience in representing employers and employees in wage-and-hour claims, including claims for unpaid overtime arising under the Massachusetts Overtime Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act. If you’d like to learn more, contact us today.