A lawsuit filed in federal court this week alleges Charlotte-based Bojangles’ cheated an employee at its Pineville-Matthews Road restaurant out of overtime pay as a way to cut costs, highlighting what experts say is a common source of complaints in the fast-food industry.
The chicken-and-biscuits chain paid the employee, who no longer works at the company, as though she’d worked 40 hours a week even though she routinely put in 50 to 70 hours and was eligible for overtime pay, according to a complaint filed in Charlotte. The suit also seeks to represent similarly situated Bojangles’ employees, which it says could exceed 400.
A representative for Bojangles’ said the company would not comment on pending litigation. The company does not appear to be facing other similar wage and hour cases in federal court.
The complaint targets just one local employer, but experts say such “wage-and-hour” lawsuits could become more commonplace under President Donald Trump’s administration, which many anticipate will be more employer-friendly on wage issues. Misclassifying certain workers as exempt to avoid paying time and a half is a common source of complaints in the fast-food industry, they said.
In the Bojangles’ case, Helen Holland alleges as an assistant unit director she performed non-managerial tasks including cleaning, taking orders, servicing customers, and preparing, cooking, and packaging food. But she says Bojangles’ categorized her as an overtime-exempt employee at a pay rate of $15.38 an hour, or $615.38 a week.
Furthermore, she says Bojangles’ sometimes treated her as a non-exempt employee when it was in the company’s financial interest to do so, reducing pay for every hour under 40 worked per week.
Strianese Huckert LLP, the Charlotte law firm representing the former Bojangles’ employee, contends that she was entitled to time and a half pay under the Fair Labor Standards Act, and that the restaurant’s failure to pay overtime was willful, and a way to save money.
“If you think about how many of these employees an employer like Bojangles’ has nationwide, the difference between classifying them as exempt so that you don’t have to pay them overtime...it adds up to a really big figure potentially,” attorney Chris Strianese said.
“This could be one of the largest FLSA collective actions in the country,” he added.
Bojangles’ isn’t the only fast-food company to face this kind of labor dispute. Subway restaurants across the U.S. were found in violation of pay and hour rules in more than 1,100 investigations, according to a CNN Money report, for example, and Burger King misclassified operations coaches and trainees as exempt employees in order to avoid paying overtime, according to the legal site Top Class Actions.
Unless the employer made a mistake in their bookkeeping or accounting practices and accidentally failed to pay employees appropriately, such wage and hour cases are “absolutely” a cost-saving mechanism, said Jeffrey Hirsch an employment attorney and professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law.
Bojangles’ went public in spring 2015 and at the time, laid out a plan to grow its footprint by 7 to 8 percent each year. The chain currently operates 699 restaurants, mostly in the Southeast.
The local complaint comes days before the confirmation hearing is set to begin for fast food executive Andrew Puzder, Trump’s pick for Labor Department secretary. Industry groups like the National Restaurant Association laud the pick, saying his experience will “help foster an environment for job creation.”
Others, however, question how his policies will affect corporations’ treatment of their workers, many of whom are low- or minimum wage employees. North Carolina’s minimum wage is $7.25, the same it has been since 2009.
Former President Barack Obama’s Labor Department aggressively pursued wage-and-hour cases and worked to change overtime rules. But it’s unclear what the new administration will prioritize in terms of investigating wage violations.
“My guess is you’ll see this department backing off on that,” Hirsch said.
Strianese said the collective action suit affects anyone who worked as an assistant unit director at Bojangles’ over the last three years.
Researcher Maria David contributed