Federal wage laws are straightforward when it comes to workers like Curtis Fulghum, a 45-year-old former satellite television installer in Washington. They’re owed pay for all hours that they work, including overtime for hours beyond 40 in a workweek. They also can’t be forced to pay for work-related expenses like equipment or gas for a company vehicle.
Unfortunately for Curtis, his employer – DirecTV – tried to skirt the law by employing him (and others) through a subcontractor, Lantern Light Corp., doing business as Advanced Information Systems.
Here’s what happened: Curtis worked for DirecTV for four years, from 2008-2012, though the name of the subcontractor changed several times. When he first started, he was paid about $85 per completed installation and $20 per box. By the time that he left, he was only receiving $65 per installation and $5 per box.
Curtis was required to pay out of his own salary for things like fittings, cables and tools, as well as all transportation costs. About 20 percent of his daily installations were unsuccessful due to no fault of his own, and he was not paid for those attempts either. He worked an average of 55 to 60 hours a week with no overtime – and with the expectation of being on-call six days a week. His total pay only averaged about $1,000 every two weeks.
The low pay and long hours created a “snowball effect of hard times,” Curtis said. He often had to borrow money from supervisors and family to be able to pay for gas to complete work orders. Things went from bad to worse when his home was foreclosed on. He then rented an apartment with a coworker but was evicted because his pay wasn’t making ends meet.
Because of his unpredictable work schedule and no place to call home, Curtis couldn’t meet his responsibility for custody time with his daughter. “I was even eligible for food subsidy at one point so I could eat and feed my family,” he recalls. “I was determined to keep up the pace of my assignments, even days I was sick from working in the rain, so I could get jobs that would pay. No work assignments meant no pay.”
When the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division learned about possible violations from another worker, we opened an investigation. What we found was that Curtis was one of 147 employees who were not being paid fairly. But when we went to the company with these findings, DirecTV claimed that it was not the installers’ employer and therefore not responsible – despite the fact that these employees worked only on DirecTV installations, had all conditions of employment specified by DirecTV, drove DirecTV vans, and wore DirecTV clothing. Sound wrong to you?
Determined not to let the company off the hook, we filed a lawsuit. The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington agreed with us, ruling that DirecTV could not use subcontracting arrangements to avoid liability and responsibility in the workplace. We also obtained a consent judgment ordering DirecTV to pay $395,000 in back wages and damages to the workers, and to obey the law going forward. Additionally, DirecTV must conduct a nationwide review to ensure contractors are complying with the Fair Labor Standards Act.
Curtis is now working in food service and is employed at the U.S. Army hospital in Tacoma, Washington. He will be receiving more than $3,000 in back wages and damages. “I cannot tell you how gratifying it is,” he said. “[The wages] come as a great relief, especially at this time around the holidays.”
If you are concerned about your company’s pay practices, or you are an employer who wants to be sure you are complying with the law, learn more on Wage and Hour Division’s website or by calling 1-866-4-US-WAGE (1-866-487-9243). You also can check to see if back wages are being held for you as the result of an investigation using our online tool, Workers Owed Wages.
Editor’s note: The “DOL Working for You” series highlights the Labor Department’s programs in action. View other blog posts in the series here.
Jose Carnevali and Tiffany Koebel are public affairs specialists for the department in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., respectively.