In our occasional series spotlighting outrageous workplace conduct, we have come across an incredible, albeit petty, means of payment: pennies. Rarely does the inconsequential piece of copper find itself in the headlines. But, one former employee likely saw enough pennies in one day to last him a lifetime.
As the New York Times reported, the owner of a Georgia auto-repair shop dumped 91,500 oil-covered pennies (that is $915 for those of you math-challenged legal observers like us) on a former employee’s driveway. He did so after the employee complained to the U.S. Department of Labor that the shop failed to send his last paycheck. The shop owner allegedly said, “How can you make this guy realize what a disgusting human being he is?” Answering his own question: “I’ve got plenty of pennies. I’ll use them.”
It would take the employee all day, and several trips to the coin exchange, to clean up the mess.
While the owner claims he can’t remember where he dumped the pennies (it was apparently just another day), the DOL took exception to the owner’s conduct and filed a lawsuit, claiming that the penny stunt (and the nasty remarks) amounted to retaliation because the employee had complained about his missing paycheck. The DOL claims the owner’s conduct was a violation of the Fair Standards Act. As a reminder, the FLSA makes it illegal to retaliate against an employee for making a complaint about wages internally or to the Department of Labor.
In addition to the retaliation claim, the DOL gave the owner a surprise of his own. The lawsuit also alleges that the auto-repair shop failed to pay legally required overtime and failed to keep adequate and accurate records of employees’ pay rates and work hours. The suit seeks $36,971 in back pay and damages for eight other employees. What started as a minor dispute over $915 has ballooned into considerable damages for a small business owner without even factoring in expenses to defend this case.
While the merits of this case are yet to be decided, it should serve as an important reminder for employers to not let small employment matters get out of hand. Employers have a duty under the FLSA to pay all wages due and to respect an employee’s concerted activity. Even if your employee is the worst person ever, as the owner claimed, “showing them who’s boss” might subject your company to unwelcome scrutiny in other areas of your business.
*Thank you to our law clerk and co-author Garrick Ross!