Wolfsdorf Rosenthal LLP

Eighth Circuit Finds Undocumented Workers Covered Under FLSA


The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit recently found that employers may not exploit undocumented workers’ status or profit from hiring such workers in violation of federal law (PDF).

For varying periods between June 2007 and March 2010, Elmer Lucas and five other undocumented workers toiled in the Jerusalem Café, some for less than minimum wage and all without receiving overtime wages. The workers sued the Café, and its then-owner Farid Azzeh and manager Adel Alazzeh, for willfully violating the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (FLSA). A jury decided in the workers’ favor, and the district court for the Western District of Missouri awarded the workers minimum and overtime wages, statutory liquidated damages, and legal fees. The district court denied the employers’ motion for judgment as a matter of law, rejecting the argument that the workers, as noncitizens without work authorization, lacked standing to sue. The employers appealed, contending the FLSA does not apply to employers who illegally hire unauthorized workers.

The Eighth Circuit rejected the employer’s argument, finding that the FLSA does not allow employers to exploit any employee’s immigration status or to profit from hiring unauthorized workers in violation of federal law. The court acknowledged the principle that “breaking one law does not give license to ignore other generally applicable laws.” Among other things, the court noted:

Congress’s purposes in enacting the FLSA and the IRCA [Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986] are in harmony. The IRCA unambiguously prohibits hiring unauthorized aliens, and the FLSA unambiguously requires that any unauthorized aliens—hired in violation of federal immigration law—be paid minimum and overtime wages. The IRCA and FLSA together promote dignified employment conditions for those working in this country, regardless of immigration status, while firmly discouraging the employment of individuals who lack work authorization. ‘If an employer realizes that there will be no advantage under the’ FLSA ‘in preferring [unauthorized] aliens to legal resident workers, any incentive to hire such … aliens is correspondingly lessened.’ Sure-Tan, 467 U.S. at 893. Exempting unauthorized aliens from the FLSA would frustrate the purposes of the IRCA, for unauthorized workers’ ‘acceptance … of jobs on substandard terms as to wages and working conditions can seriously depress wage scales and working conditions of citizens and legally admitted aliens.” De Canas v. Bica, 424 U.S. 351, 356-57 (1976).

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