In a major concession to employers, on February 25 Governor Patrick, like Mitt Romney before him, refused to sign legislation designed to strengthen penalties imposed on employers that violate state wage and hour laws, instead sending it back to the legislature with a demand that they water down the law. At issue was S. 1059, which would have reinstated automatic treble damages for employees who prevail in wage and hour lawsuits against their employers. Patrick balked at signing the law, instructing lawmakers to fashion a bill based on the weaker Federal Fair Labor Standards Act.
In 1993, the Legislature significantly strengthened Massachusetts wage and hour laws, giving enforcement power to the Attorney General and giving employees the right to sue directly. Under the 1993 law, employees who prevailed in their suits were entitled to recover their attorney’s fees, and also to recover triple damages for the violations. For years, courts routinely upheld triple damages in such cases. Unfortunately, in 2005, the Supreme Judicial Court, in the case Weidman v. The Bradford Group, Inc., 444 Mass. 698 (2005), ruled that judges had the discretion to not award triple damages. The General Court, in response to Weidman, passed bills that clearly reiterated the legislature’s intent that triple damages be mandatory, and not subject to a judge’s discretion. In the last session, then Governor Romney vetoed the bill. Senate Democrats, seeking to restore worker protections, did not anticipate the same treatment from a Democrat Governor. But that’s what they got. The governor refused to sign the bill, instead calling for the General Court to go easy on employers who violate the law “in good faith, on the advice of counsel and guidance from the governmental authorities.” The federal law, which is weaker than state law in many areas, allows employers to avoid paying extra damages based on a “good faith” defense.
Unfortunately, this action by the governor is not entirely surprising. While Gov. Patrick campaigned as a friend to workers, he spent much of his legal career making millions representing management, including management at the aggressively anti-union Coca-Cola, and his wife is a management-side lawyer at one of the corporate law firms in Boston. Patrick’s action is particularly galling in that he calls on the state to mimic weaker federal law. Of course, Massachusetts prides itself on providing greater protection for workers than federal law requires. For example, Massachusetts protects workers from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, federal law does not. Indeed, Massachusetts just raised the minimum wage to $8.00 per hour, the second highest in the nation (the minimum wage in Washington State is $8.07), while the federal minimum wage remains at $5.85. So the governor is asking the General Court to take a step backwards.
The Governor’s plea for poor employers who have to pay their employees damages rings particularly hallow. We’re talking about a group of employers who have been found to have unlawfully not paid their workers! Patrick calls triple damages “unfairly punitive” to employers, but what about the workers who aren’t paid in the first place? Again, prevailing workers were routinely awarded treble damages prior to 2005. Did paying for their sins cause our workforce to crumble? No, in fact, the “triple damages era” corresponded with the economic boom of the 1990s. The bottom line is that this legislation was passed to reinstate what the General Court intended all along – that employers be punished when they fail to pay their employees in accordance with the law. Governor Patrick’s refusal to sign it stifles this worthy goal.