Two lawsuits recently filed in the Webster County Circuit Court target the Niangua R-V School District. Both have to do with failure to pay overtime to hourly workers.
One, filed by Melissa Phillips, targets Superintendent TJ Bransfield and the members of the Board of Education.
The other, filed by school janitor Loretta Nelson, is a class-action lawsuit that names the district as defendant.
Phillips is a bookkeeper for the school. In her petition, she details having made a report to the Board of Education regarding concerns that the district was violating the law. Specifically, she told the board that the district was violating wage and hour laws by not paying employees the proper amount of overtime, according to the petition.
"Plaintiff informed defendants that some employees were told not to report any hours over 40 hours on their time card and that timecards would be changed if they reflected anything above 40 hours," the complaint alleges.
At the time, Phillips requested that there not be retaliation against her for coming forward, the petition notes. She had previously told Bransfield, the document states, but no action was taken.
The petition notes that her concern was for the employees of the district who did not receive wages as provided by law. But board members retaliated against her, the petition maintains; one form retaliation took was to take from Phillips her duties as board secretary.
Bransfield, too, is alleged to have engaged in unlawful retaliation against Phillips, the petition states. He wrote her up three times and then placed her on administrative leave, and also reduced her job duties and powers. (An amended petition maintains that Bransfield wrote Phillips up a fourth time after the initial filing.)
Phillips’ lawsuit claims that the defendants retaliated against her in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act. She is asking for compensatory and punitive damages, as well as fees and costs.
In the other lawsuit, Nelson represents all hourly employees. "Defendant prohibited plaintiff … from recording time of services and work performed over 40 hours during the workweek, resulting in an inaccurate calculation and failure to pay overtime for work and services performed for overtime purposes and resulting in unpaid overtime compensation," the petition alleges.
Nelson and her fellow employees demand compensation for unpaid overtime for the past five years. The petition alleges that Superintendent Bransfield was aware of the prohibition of recording overtime. Before filing the lawsuit, on Oct. 25, Nelson brought to the attention of Bransfield her prior reports to him of being made to change her time card and not receiving overtime.
The class of employees included in the lawsuit includes all current or former employees who were hourly, non-exempt and performed services in excess of 40 hours per workweek over the last five years. Phillips believes some 20 employees have been impacted.
Jay Kirksey, the attorney for the plaintiffs in both cases, emphasized in an interview that employees deserve to be paid for their work.
"The district, just like every employer — they’re required to pay their employees overtime," he said. "Unfortunately, they had a practice in place where employees would go in — hourly folks, janitors, etc. — and they'd have overtime, 42, 43, 46 hours, and they'd be told, 'Nope. You have 40.'"
Kirksey said that he would like to see people in authority do what’s right. "Those people that are the janitors and the cooks and the hourly people — every dollar makes a difference, and the services are performed, so they just need to be paid what they should have been paid in the first place."
He added that no one who makes a report in good faith should face retaliation. "You should encourage anybody who reports wrongful conduct in good faith. Then you can engage in this interactive process — 'Hey, are we doing something wrong here? Let's give it a fair consideration; let's find out the truth,'" Kirksey said.
He added, "Let's do the right thing. If we did that in all of our relationships, we’d have a much better world."