A “class action” is a lawsuit that tries to protect the rights of many people harmed by the same problem. A “collective action” is a somewhat different procedure used in cases under the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Equal Pay Act, and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. On this page, the phrase “class action” means both class and collective actions.
These are examples of some unlawful employment practices that a class action can challenge:
- In the past, many police departments refused to hire job applicants who were not at least six feet tall. This excluded most women, Hispanics, and Asians.
- Some employers refuse to hire women for jobs men had traditionally performed, or refused to hire blacks or Hispanics for jobs whites or Anglos had traditionally performed.
- Many employers still do not promote many women or members of minority groups beyond a certain level. This is the “glass ceiling” we hear about.
- Some employers save a lot of money by giving employees who should be entitled to overtime a fancy title like “assistant manager”. However, they refuse to give them management duties. These employers then try to confuse the employees by paying them a weekly salary instead of an hourly payment, telling them their jobs are exempt from overtime requirements. Then they work the employees 60 or more hours a week, and refuse to pay overtime. The effect on the employees is drastic. Not only do they lose a lot of their personal time, their effective hourly pay rate – their total compensation divided by their total hours – is much less than either an hourly employee with overtime, or a real manager, would expect to make.
- Some employers cheat employees of their time by changing the time clock records to show a later punch in, or an earlier punch out, or by inserting a longer lunch break than the employee took.
These violations of the law will last for as long as the job applicants and employees stand for it.
An applicant for a job or employee who wants to stop these practices has two choices:
- The job applicant or employee can file an individual lawsuit:
- The job applicant or employee can obtain an award of money and sometimes a court order requiring hire, promotion, or reinstatement;
- It is often easier to settle an individual case than a class action;
- BUT even if the job applicant or employee wins, the unlawful practice often continues for others;
- AND employers do win many individual cases because it is hard to show that the employer is not telling the truth if it’s just the employer’s word against the employee’s word. In addition, the limited financial stakes do not justify a lot of attorney time and expense.
- The job applicant or employee can bring a class action and:
- Still obtain an individual remedy such as an award of money and a court order requiring her hire or promotion;
- But also can obtain a remedy for all affected class members such as an award of money and an injunction requiring a certain number of promotions of class members, and
- Can obtain a court order requiring changes in the employer’s practices in the future, and a system to monitor its actions to make sure it does not backslide.
- In a class action, the plaintiff represents the class members and has to protect their interests, not just his or her own interests.
- The court decides whether the case is a proper class action, and which people the plaintiff can represent.
- The court must give approval for any settlement of the class.
- Class actions sometimes take longer to resolve – possibly years.
- Many civil rights cases would never be brought as individual cases because each individual’s injuries may be too small to justify the expense of a separate lawsuit for that individual.
- When depositions can cost a thousand dollars a day and many are required, or when multiple experts have to be used, or when a lawsuit can require hundreds or thousands or tens of thousands of attorney hours, the only practical way to get justice is to sue on behalf of a lot of workers in the same case.
For these reasons, often the only effective way to enforce employee rights is to bring a class action lawsuit that gets relief for a large number of employees.