Donning and doffing claims?  Two unions? Two contracts?  State law wage and hour claims?  Preemption? Removal jurisdiction?  Many of the thorniest wage and hour issues have made their way into a single case.  In Curry v. Kraft Foods Global.pdf (N.D. Ill. Oct. 25, 2010), the court had to resolve all of these issues in a case involving approximately 200 employees, and its analysis may be instructive on cases of considerably less complexity.

The Curry case was a class action arising out of a food plant operated by Kraft in Naperville, Illinois.  Employees at the plant were represented by either of two unions.  The plaintiffs sought to be paid for time spent donning and doffing safety gear.   Apparently concerned about section 3(o) of the FLSA, 29 U.S.C. section 203(o), which provides that the union and management can agree to exclude time spent “changing clothes” for hours worked, they brought suit in state court under Illinois law.  The Illinois version of the FLSA contains no section 3(o) equivalent.  Although they asserted no federal claim, and probably did so deliberately, the defendant removed the case to federal court on the grounds that the claims were preempted by the FLSA and Section 301 of the Labor Management Relations Act, 29 U.S.C. section 185.  The plaintiffs moved the court to remand the case to state court.

This case did not present any issue of a conflict between the FLSA’s enforcement mechanisms and those under state law because the plaintiffs asserted no FLSA claim.  The employer argued instead that because Illinois law contained no counterpart to section 3(o), it was preempted by federal law.   The court rightly rejected this argument because section 18(a) of the FLSA, 29 U.S.C. section 218(a) provides that states can exceed the overtime requirements of federal law.  Thus, the FLSA would have permitted Illinois law to provide substantive benefits more generous to the employees.

The more interesting part of the decision was the court’s analysis of the Section 301 preemption issue.  Essentially, the employer argued that issues of contract interpretation were largely intertwined with consideration of the employees’ claims, even though the contract itself was largely silent on the issue of whether doffing and donning time was time worked.  The district court agreed, specifically noting provisions of the contracts requiring the payment of wages for hours of “work” and also those relating to the different rates of pay for different employees.  The court concluded that the plaintiffs’ claims required that it “interpret, not merely reference, the CBA.”  The court therefore found that the claims were so preempted that the LMRA provided sufficient jurisdiction on which the case could be removed, even though the complaint on its face stated no federal claim.  Interestingly, while the court did not say so explicitly, the effect of its ruling was to supplant a state law statutory wage and hour claim with a federal claim regarding the appropriate construction of the relevant collective bargaining agreements.

The bottom line:  The FLSA most likely will not preempt a state law claim that exceeds its substantive requirements, but in the case of unionized employees, their state law claims my be preempted by section 301 and governed by the terms of the collective bargaining agreement.  Employers confronted with state law wage and hour claims brought by unionized employees should consider the issue of Section 301 preemption.