County schools facing litigation about overtime pay

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, February 25, 2003

Attorneys representing a group that has filed suit against the Pike County School System are looking for plaintiffs to join the class action litigation. The suit alleges that the schools have failed to provide payment to employees for overtime work.

Pike County Schools Superintendent Mark Bazzell declined to comment on the pending litigation initiated by Dorothy Jackson, James Jackson and Barbara Rodgers on July 11. The suit stems from allegations that the school system violated the federal Fair Labor Standards Act by failing to properly pay employees that worked over 40 hours a week.

Robert Ramsey, a Mobile lawyer orchestrating the lawsuit, said his firm had filed 30 or 40 suits across Alabama and Mississippi over the past year or two.

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&uot;All of these suits have been filed on behalf of non-certified employees such as bus drivers, custodians and cafeteria cooks,&uot; he said. &uot;You just can't ask somebody to work a job and not pay them. The law is the law.&uot;

Ramsey said people who have been employed by Pike County Schools can still join the lawsuit if they worked overtime any time since March 14, 2000, and were not properly compensated.

&uot;Some of these people are dual employees, working, for example, as a custodian in the daytime and driving a bus in the mornings and afternoons,&uot; he said. &uot;They're asked to drive to football games on Friday nights or come in after PTA meetings and clean things up or come in early on cold days and turn on the furnace.&uot;

According to Ramsey, none of the Alabama lawsuits have been settled yet.

&uot;We're still in the very early stages,&uot; he said.

But Ramsey stresses that time is an important element for those looking to join the suit. He referred to a packet sent to present and former county employees containing legal notices, consent forms and contracts for legal services.

&uot;We sent out the notices around Feb. 10 and hope to hear back from the employees soon. We've got about 5,000 names and they have until March 14 to send the forms back in if they want to join the lawsuit,&uot; he said. &uot;If you're an employee and don't send it in, you may be forever barred from seeking damages. There's a good question as to whether you'll be able to sue in the future, so it's very important that they get those back to us immediately.&uot;

Hank Jones, Superintendent of Troy City Schools, said his system was in the clear as far as the lawsuits were concerned.

&uot;We have met the letter of the law,&uot; he said. &uot;We have polled and surveyed current and former employees. We asked the Labor Department to come in to audit our school system and they did. Checks have been issued.&uot;

Jones said the school system had not only preempted the lawsuits about overtime, but were taking steps to ensure that no future violations occur.

&uot;We issued checks and now we are working to make sure people don't work overtime unless they get the approval of the superintendent,&uot; he said. &uot;We are, to my knowledge, operating under the letter of the law.&uot;

The letter of the law will be critical when the case comes to trial, Ramsey said.

&uot;Schools don't do a good job of keeping up with the hours that these people work,&uot; he said. &uot;We have to support our case with credible evidence and, at that point, the burden shifts to the schools to show that they have compensated those employees. The problem for the school boards is that many of them don't have good record keeping.&uot;

When asked whether he gets a lot of criticism from the public for filing suit against school systems and seeking monetary damages during this time of educational financial need, Ramsey said yes - to a degree.

&uot;We get some, but not a lot,&uot; he said. &uot;I just ask those people why it is that a school system can pay a football coach what they pay them, some of them up to $100,000 a year, and don't pay the other employees. I'm a big football fan. I love high school, college and the pros, but when you cannot or will not pay those who pick up your children on the bus or feed your children, how can you justify spending that money on the sports program?&uot;

Ramsey said the grievance of the employees was a simple one. The FLSA requires employees who work more than 40 hours a week to be paid for time and a half.

&uot;I don't know anybody who'd work for free,&uot; he said.

Stephen Stetson can be reached at stephen.stetson