A new whistleblower lawsuit has put fresh attention on the pay practices of public school districts, according to US News & World Report, as a former labor law compliance officer claims she was fired from her job in South Carolina after identifying over 40 employees who had been unfairly deprived of overtime.
Public School Accused Of Labor Violations
Machelle Thompson, a former public school official in South Carolina, lost her job because she did it well. In 2015, Thompson was hired to serve as the Director of Classified Employment Services for a district of nearly 60 schools clustered around the State’s capital, Columbia. Thompson’s job description was fairly simple: make sure the school district’s employees are being paid in line with federal requirements. That’s exactly what she did.
Soon after being hired, Thompson discovered that her South Carolina district, Richland County School District 1, had established “many unusual and questionable practices.” More than 40 employees, for example, had been misclassified under federal labor laws, Thompson says, depriving workers of earned overtime. That was wrong from an ethical standpoint, she reasoned, but could also open the school district up to a federal investigation.
High-level school administrators, however, were already conspiring against her, according to the federal complaint Thompson filed on March 8, 2017. When Thompson began to investigate her suspicions, she found a bureaucracy “resistant to change” – even in the face of changing legal terrain. Throughout her tenure in Columbia, Thompson was directly supervised by Sanita Cousar, the school district’s top human resources officer. Cousar wasn’t happy with Thompson’s work, the lawsuit explains. By the end of April 2016, the manager had already sent Thompson two letters of reprimand, promising further sanctions if Thompson didn’t stick to the party-line. The reprimand letters, Thompson says, were based on “false and pretextual charges” that she continues to deny.
Overtime Law Heads Into Uncharted Waters
Machelle Thompson was hired amid a sea change in US labor law. In May of 2016, the US Department of Labor announced a new rule extending overtime rights to thousands of salaried workers who were previously exempt. Thompson’s job, as outlined by the school district, was to identify employees who would be covered under the new rule, which raised the minimum salary threshold for overtime from $23,660 per year to $47,476 per year.
After completing her own analysis of the issue, Thompson presented her results to the school district’s executive board, but her findings went far beyond workers who would become eligible for overtime under the Labor Department’s pending guidance. Dozens of current district employees, Thompson noted, were already improperly classified under the Fair Labor Standards Act, a federal labor law governing pay requirements for most employees in the country. Those workers, she said, deserved overtime wages, but weren’t getting them.
Her allegations aren’t unprecedented. In fact, the same school district was ordered to pay over $78,000 in back wages, after a Labor Department investigation found that almost 220 employees had been deprived of their pay.
School Strikes Out Against Labor Investigation
Thompson’s human resources manager soon took action, the complaint continues, attempting to kill off any hope the misclassified employees may have had. In December, Cousar sent a letter to employees and supervisors, advising the workers that no changes would be made in their exemption status. Cousar’s message was clear, Thompson claims: workers who aren’t eligible for overtime now are staying that way.
Thompson quickly fired off an email, outlining why she found Cousar’s message to the workers “problematic.” As Thompson explained, she and her colleagues had identified over 40 workers who were misclassified as exempt from overtime pay based on the Labor Department’s long-standing “duties test,” which holds that certain employees, based on their job duties, are automatically entitled to overtime.
Read The Whistleblower Lawsuit: Thompson v. Richland County School District One
The duties test, Thompson continued, has nothing to do with the Department of Labor’s change to the salary threshold. Misclassified workers are still misclassified workers, no matter how much they make. Thompson warned Cousar that her continued efforts to deprive workers of overtime could place the school district at the wrong end of a federal investigation.
District Rushed To Hide Evidence, Complaint Says
Thompson’s email quickly roused the school district’s lead attorney, the lawsuit claims. Susan Williams, the district’s general counsel, personally “admonished” Thompson for putting her grievances into writing. Thompson’s criticism of the school district had just been made public information, Williams said.
Her references to “misclassified workers” had become discoverable under a Freedom of Information Act request. According to Thompson, the school district had every intention of hiding its alleged illegal activities from public and federal scrutiny. The next week, Thompson received yet another letter of reprimand. This time, the missive included threats of termination, she says. The school district’s winter break began the same day.
Plaintiff Claims “Conspiracy” Concealed Pay Issues
As soon as students had returned to their classes, Thompson took her case to the district’s superintendent, Craig Witherspoon. She filed a grievance, including Cousar’s most recent letter of reprimand, and told Witherspoon that her superior’s termination threat amounted to a retaliatory act. Cousar wanted her fired, Thompson wrote, because she had found and acted on evidence of labor abuses.
In Witherspoon, Thompson did not find an ally, the lawsuit says. Instead, she found a conspirator, another high-level school district official hell-bent on pushing her out of the job. The superintendent immediately put Thompson on administrative leave, ordering her to leave the school district’s main office. She never returned to work, court documents relate, but she did continue to fight.
Thompson went back to her human services manager, Sanita Cousar, repeating her grievance and demanding a change. She was fired the same day. Thompson quickly appealed the termination, but in a hearing before the school district’s superintendent, it became clear that Witherspoon “had prejudged [Thompson’s case] and was, in fact, a part of the conspiracy to punish and terminate [her],” court documents state.
Neither Sanita Cousar nor Susan Williams were present at the appeal hearing.
School District Comes Under Federal Investigation
While Thompson’s whistleblower lawsuit is concerned primarily with issues of wrongful termination and unlawful retaliatory conduct, her complaint has put the pay practices of public schools back into the spotlight. In South Carolina, officials at the Labor Department’s Wage & Hour Division have now confirmed that an investigation of the school district’s alleged labor violations is ongoing, the Associated Press reports.
Richland County’s school district, however, isn’t cooperating with federal investigators, according to a report from independent journalism outfit Quorum. Multiple sources tell Quorum that administrators for the district have instructed employees, including workers who were improperly classified, to withhold crucial hour logs from Labor Department agents. In fact, sources say the school district even held meetings to “coach” workers on how to interact with federal officials. Employees have been told to answer only “yes” or “no” questions, the source explained, leaving out any information that isn’t specifically demanded.
All this secrecy has scared school employees, Quorum reports. “The people I know who want to talk to investigators,” the source told reporters, “are afraid to do it at work or during business hours, anywhere they can be seen […] they know they’ll be blackballed, assigned to a low-paying position or get negative evaluations leading to termination. That’s how this district operates, and everyone knows it.”
Overtime For Teachers Hits Snag In Federal Court
Teachers work more overtime than employees in any other industry, according to TES, a networking and professional development firm devoted to educators. In 2014, over 60% of primary school teachers went over-and-above their scheduled hours, working around 12.9 unpaid overtime hours every week.
The vast majority of these educators, though, are not entitled to overtime wages, falling under the Fair Labor Standards Act exemption for “learned professionals.” The Labor Department’s recent rule change promised reform – at least for entry-level teachers, who make an average salary of $36,000.
That reform isn’t coming anytime soon. In November of 2016, a Texas federal judge ruled against the government, issuing an injunction to delay the rule’s implementation indefinitely. While legal observers believed the injunction was only temporary, labor officials for the newly-inaugurated Trump administration have repeatedly asked to extend the delay further, leaving employers and workers in legal limbo.