By George J. Miller
It is common practice for employers to “get it in writing” when conducting workplace investigations. However, when it comes to employees complaining about wage and hour violations, a new court decision cautions against this practice. In a case involving a Saint Gobain Performance Plastics plant in Wisconsin, a federal appeals court has held that employees who orally complain about what they believe are violations of wage and hour law, but do not put their complaint in writing to management, cannot pursue a claim for retaliation in court if they are later disciplined or discharged and believe this action was taken because of their earlier complaints.
In the Saint Gobain case, the employee was progressively disciplined and eventually discharged for improperly clocking in and out on the company’s Kronos time clock system. After he was discharged, he filed suit alleging that his discipline and discharge were actually in retaliation for oral complaints he made to his supervisors and Human Resources that the location of the time clocks illegally prevented employees from being paid for time spent donning and doffing required protective gear.
The trial court dismissed his case because his workplace complaints were not in writing, and the court of appeals affirmed. In so ruling, the court of appeals joined one other federal court of appeals which had ruled the same way in another case. In other federal jurisdictions, the issue is still unresolved. So watch for further developments on this issue.
In the mean time, employers should be cautious about asking employees to put complaints about wage and hour violations in writing.