By FRED LUDWIG, Californian staff writer e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Sunday March 31, 2002, 10:30:01 PM
Attorneys for a group of current and former Wackenhut Corporation workers want to expand an overtime-pay lawsuit against the private prison company to hundreds of workers.
The company, which runs several Kern County prisons, has made employees work overtime without paying them for it, a lawsuit alleges.
Ten people filed the suit in December in Kern Superior Court. But attorneys are seeking to certify the suit as a class-action complaint on behalf of large numbers of current and former company workers in California.
Attorneys estimate that group could number between 800 and 2,400 people, said plaintiff's attorney Philip Ganong.
However, such a move requires judge approval, and Kern judges allow few, if any, such class-action lawsuits, Ganong said. Ganong said he is not aware of any class-action suits ever being litigated here.
The decision is based on a series of factors, such as whether there is a readily definable group and whether the members of that group have circumstances in common, Ganong said.
Ganong said the current group of plaintiffs includes workers from all of Wackenhut's six California prisons -- in Taft, Adelanto, San Diego and three in McFarland.
Practices vary from one prison to another, Ganong said.
Wackenhut misclassified some of its workers, telling them they didn't qualify for overtime because they are paid on a salary basis, rather than hourly, Ganong said. But he said companies cannot just call someone a manager and then deny overtime pay. The law allows such a designation only for workers who perform supervisory duties more than half the time, Ganong said.
Other hourly employees were classified properly but at times were not paid for overtime they had worked, Ganong said.
For example, the routine for correctional officers checking out at the end of a shift -- such as turning in keys -- at times lasts beyond the end of the eight-hour period, Ganong said. But, in at least some such cases, no overtime was allowed, Ganong said.
In other violations, employees at times were not given proper rest and meal breaks, the suit alleges.
In many cases, the unpaid overtime was only for a half-hour a day, Ganong said. But he said it amounts to substantial time, given the number of workers affected over long time periods.
"They need to follow the law," Ganong said.
The company could try to structure shifts differently to avoid overtime if possible, Ganong said. If not, he said it should pay the overtime.
The suit seeks unspecified back wages and a judge's order barring improper practices.
Margaret Pearson, Wackenhut corporate communications vice president, declined to comment.