8th Circuit extends FLSA coverage to undocumented employees

The 8th Circuit recently held that undocumented aliens are authorized to bring suit under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) to enforce unpaid minimum and overtime wages.


For different periods between June 2007 and March 2010, Elmer Lucas and five other workers without employment authorization worked at Jerusalem Café and were paid in cash at a fixed weekly rate that didn't vary based on the overtime hours they worked. The café was owned by Farid Azzeh and managed by Adel Alazzeh.

On January 23, 2010, one of the workers, Feliciano Macario, called the police after Azzeh and Alazzeh's nephew allegedly struck him. Fearing the police would discover that he employed illegal aliens, Azzeh offered Macario $500 to drop the charges and return to work. Macario refused.

The employer terminated Macario in January 2010. The other workers' employment was terminated in March 2010 after they refused to falsify an employment application to make it appear that they hadn't been working at the café before March 2010.

The workers filed suit, alleging the employer willfully failed to pay minimum and overtime wages in violation of the FLSA. At trial, Azzeh claimed photos and videos of the workers performing tasks at the restaurant showed them "volunteering" and "posing for pictures." He also claimed the workers' food handler cards, issued by the Kansas City (Missouri) Health Department and listing the café as their workplace, were obtained to allow them to "volunteer" at the restaurant.

A jury found in the workers' favor, and the district court awarded them $141,864.04 in actual damages for unpaid FLSA wages, $141,864.04 in liquidated damages based on the jury's finding that the employer willfully failed to pay FLSA wages, $150,627.00 in legal fees, and $6,561.63 in expenses. The employer requested a new trial, arguing the workers, as undocumented aliens, were prohibited by law from receiving any wages and lacked standing (the legal right) to sue for back pay under the FLSA. The district court rejected both arguments, and the employer appealed.

8th Circuit's decision

On appeal, the 8th Circuit noted that the only appellate court to rule on the matter, numerous district courts, and the secretary of labor have all stated employers that unlawfully hire unauthorized aliens must otherwise comply with federal employment laws. The 8th Circuit held that aliens, regardless of whether they're authorized to work, may recover unpaid and underpaid wages under the FLSA.

The court found that the FLSA's sweeping definitions of "employer" and "employee" unambiguously encompass unauthorized aliens. "Employer" includes any person acting directly or indirectly in the interest of an employer in relation to an employee (including a public agency), but does not include any labor organization (if it isn't acting as an employer) or anyone acting in the capacity of an officer or agent of a labor organization. In another section, the Act states (with certain statutorily defined exceptions) that the term "employee" means any individual employed by an employer. "Employ" is defined as "to suffer or permit to work."

The court noted that there's no conflict between the FLSA and the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA). Both statutes work in tandem to discourage employers from hiring unauthorized workers by ensuring that lawful residents' wages and employment aren't adversely affected by competition from illegal aliens who aren't subject to the standard terms of employment. Applying the FLSA to undocumented workers is essential to achieving its purposes of protecting workers from substandard working conditions, reducing unfair competition for law- abiding employers, and increasing employment rates because employers would often prefer to hire additional staff rather than pay overtime compensation. The lower court's decision in favor of the employees in this case was affirmed. Lucas v. Jerusalem Café, LLC, 2013 U.S. App. LEXIS 15320 (July 29, 2013).

Bottom line

Undocumented workers may file claims against their employer under the FLSA. That position is consistent with the IRCA, which prohibits employers from hiring unauthorized workers.