Suit: Some 45 district employees denied overtime they deserved for years; Federal Bureau of Labor may investigate
by RON AIKEN
During Machelle Thompson’s interview for the position of Director of Classification Employment with superintendent Craig Witherspoon, human resources chief Sanita Cousar and general counsel Susan Williams, the Navy veteran and practicing attorney laid her cards on the table matter-of-factly.
“I told them that if they wanted to stay with the status quo, they need to go ahead and hire from within,” Thompson said. “But if they want someone to help the district move forward, there is no better person than me.”
Hired with that mission, Thompson went to work in May 2015. For a while, things went well.
“There was about an eight-month honeymoon period where things were OK,” Thompson said. “But then I started coming across some professional practices I found to be ethically questionable. And as I started addressing some of those things to correct them, which I thought was the reason I was hired, I found Cousar and Williams very resistant to change in what I found to be a deeply embedded, self-serving culture that had been going on a long time.”
The initial brushes with uncomfortable practices, Thompson said, soon became full-on confrontations thanks to changes in Washington.
In early 2016 the Department of Labor announced a new nationwide change for overtime rules governing the minimum salary threshold, raising it from $23,600 to $47,476 per year effective Dec. 1, 2016. As the director overseeing the accurate classification of employees, her ensuing research into proper classification guidelines and the overtime provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) led Thompson to conclude that approximately 46 Richland One employees whose job duties should have made them ‘non-exempt’ and therefore eligible for overtime pay had previously been improperly classified, for years in some cases, preventing them from getting overtime.
“What I saw was that he chiefs there have executive assistants they work like mules,” Thompson said. “They call them when they’re home sick, they call them on weekends, they call them when they’re on vacation and they don’t pay them overtime because they’ve got them classified as exempt when actually they’re not because they pass the Department of Labor’s duties test.”
With good data on hand for which employees should be receiving overtime under the new guidelines, on Nov. 22 Cousar sent a letter to a large number of employees and their supervisors telling them of the new rule coming and that since they’d been identified as “non-exempt,” they’d have to use a time card to track their hours.
That same day, however, a U.S. District Court Judge in Texas issued a temporary injunction on the ruling, staying the implementation of the salary change threshold for overtime eligibility.
With the temporary injunction potentially jeopardizing the new salary threshold, on Dec. 1 and without consulting Thompson, Cousar wrote to affected employees that they still would need to clock (or “swipe”) in but that they would not be entitled to overtime or a change in their “exempt” status.
Knowing that information was inaccurate, Thompson wrote an email on Dec. 5 to Cousar explaining her errors and the possible repercussions.
“The injunction had nothing to do with the fact that these people have been improperly classified for years before,” Thompson said. “They need to have that fixed now so they can be paid correctly.
“Continuing to deny them what they’re owed is a violation of of the Free Labor Standards Act, and I advised her that her previous letter created problems that needed to be fixed or face a potential Department of Labor investigation that could be costly both legally and financially to the District.”
Rather than a note of thanks, Thompson got a warning from the legal office the next day.
“I was told it was inappropriate for me to have sent the email to my supervisor because it could be discoverable by FOIA,” Thompson said. “I was reprimanded for insubordination for letting them know the penalties of breaking the law.”
On Dec. 16, the day before Christmas break, Cousar hand-delivered Thompson a written reprimand threatening termination for sending the email.
After winter break, Thompson returned to work and filed a rebuttal to the charges in the reprimand on Jan. 13, 2017. Four days later Thompson received a letter from Cousar denying her request to have the reprimand rescinded. On Jan. 18 Thompson filed a formal grievance under District policy against Cousar for retaliating against Thompson with the letter of reprimand.
Two days later on Jan. 20, Richland One Superintendent Craig Witherspoon placed Thompson on administrative leave and ordered she leave the District office and not return.
Thompson’s grievance hearing against Cousar was held on Feb. 10 with only one other person in the room — Cousar.
“I had to grieve against the person I was grieving about,” Thompson said.”Come on. But that’s Richland One. This is how they operate. Of course the grievance was denied.”
Unemployed now, Thompson still can’t believe the environment she encountered at Richland One.
“After the honeymoon period, I saw the district for what it was,” Thompson said. “The District is rich in resources and it has a lot of people who could make a difference, but there’s this evil, clandestine group of people who work to destroy the people who stand up for what’s right.
“It’s a tragedy. I’m most afraid nothing will change. They’ve been operating for this way for 20 years and no one stands up to them. I knew what was happening was wrong. We were violating the United States statute for fair labor. I personally cannot watch something unethical happen.”
For the Department of Labor to investigate and/or launch an audit, all it takes is one person making a complaint, said Thompson, who filed a lawsuit against Cousar and Williams on Feb. 16 alleging retaliation and defamation.
“I feel for the people left there, but I hope that a Department of labor investigation comes in — I think it will — and solve some of those problems. I may have lost my job, but at least I didn’t lose my integrity.”
Reach Aiken at (803) 200-8809. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow him on Twitter @RonAiken and @QuorumColumbia.