A federal judge has granted conditional class certification to a class of workers at a subsidiary of AT&T, who are alleging a failure to pay overtime.  The case is entitled Wlotkowski et al. v. Michigan Bell Telephone Company, filed in the Eastern District of Michigan.

These outside plant engineers made a sufficient showing to the judge for her to order conditional certification and the sending of the opt-in notices to similarly situated people.  The company must provide names and addresses within ten days so that opt-in notices may be sent. These employees draft plans which are then used by other employees use to install telephone lines in their proper locations.

The issue arose when the Company reclassified the workers from exempt to non-exempt under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”).  This is a red flag for employees and Department of Labor alike, because the employees questioned (as anyone would) if their duties were identical pre and post re-classification, why were they not getting overtime pay prior to the re-classification. Instant lawsuit!  Moreover, the Company does not dispute that the employees worked in excess of forty (40) hours per week during the relevant time period (i.e. three years prior to date of complaint filing).

The thrust of the workers claim is that they are not “engineers,” as they hold no professional degrees which would qualify them for the professional exemption.  They claim their duties are more clerical in nature and they do not exercise any managerial or supervisory responsibilities. Interestingly enough, they all hold the title of “Manager, Outside Plant Planning Engineering and Design.”

This case highlights two significant problems.  First, titles mean nothing.  Calling someone a “Manager” does not qualify them for any exemption.  The analysis, whether by a DOL, or a court, will always be on what the actual duties are.

Second, more importantly, employers who set about to re-classify workers must be aware of what their possible back pay exposure will be (because all it takes is one person to complain, or sue) and either proactively deal with that, i.e. pay it, or develop a sufficiently polished spin when employees are informed of the reclassification to (hopefully) avoid any one complaining or suing. Not an easy task!  Either way.