A class-action lawsuit brought against Stewart’s Shops last year alleging wage law violations will move forward, thanks to a new ruling issued Monday in federal court.
While Senior Judge Thomas McAvoy dismissed several of the claims brought against the Malta-based chain of convenience stores, he upheld others and denied the company’s motion to dismiss the suit outright, according to a decision and order filed this week in U.S. District Court in the Northern District of New York.
The suit dates back to January 2014, when Jefferson County resident and former Stewart’s Shops employee Holly Gregory alleged she routinely worked beyond her scheduled hours without compensation. Two other former employees — Matthew Potter and Astrid Halten — have since joined the suit as plaintiffs. About 30 former employees, most from the Capital Region, have joined the suit as “opt-in” plaintiffs.
In particular, she said the company required employees do specific tasks when they open and close for the day and when their shifts begin or end that required they work overtime. Gregory, who mostly worked night shifts, alleges she routinely worked until 12:30 or 1 a.m. to properly close a store on a shift scheduled to end at 11:45 p.m. She also says she worked an extra 15 minutes a day during shift changes. The extra time was all uncompensated, plaintiffs say.
Ryan Finn, an attorney for the plaintiffs with E. Stewart Jones Hacker Murphy, said the judge’s decision will allow his firm to move forward with discovery and seek conditional and then formal class-action certification.
“I think it’s a great decision for our clients and gets us one step closer for hardworking employees at Stewart’s to get the pay they really are deserved,” he said. “We’re hopeful we’ll get them reasonable compensation, but I’m sure there’s a lot of fight to go. I don’t expect this to be the end. Unfortunately these things can take considerable time.’
Stewart’s also viewed the judge’s decision, which dismissed some of the plaintiff’s claims, in its favor.
“We are pleased with the judge’s decision thus far, but it is too premature to declare victory,” said company spokeswoman Maria D’Amelia in an email. “We are optimistic about the pending litigation. Stewart’s Shops has remained confident all along; striving to treat and pay its partners fairly.”
In addition to uncompensated overtime, the plaintiffs say they weren’t compensated for work performed during breaks or while running errands for the company, like bank runs, gas comparison checks and picking up or dropping off supplies from other Stewart’s stores. Employees also allege they were not allowed the state’s required 20-minute meal breaks or paid for times they were called into work for mandatory meetings or unscheduled shifts.
Employees also objected to the company making them pay for their own uniform maintenance. State law requires an employer either provide employees with enough “wash-and-wear” uniforms to get through a work week or add an extra $9 a week to their paychecks, Finn said — in theory for the washing, drying and other maintenance costs.
“If you do the math on that, and assume we end up with 4,000 people in our class who didn’t get their $9 a week, you’re still looking at a pretty big number that Stewart’s is saving by not paying that,” he said. “It adds up.”
Finn said he expects an influx of opt-in plaintiffs once he obtains formal class-action certification, which comes when the court issues a formal notice to all members of the affected class.
Stewart’s employs nearly 4,500 workers across 330 shops in the Northeast. Several hundred current and former employees have contacted Finn about joining the suit, but a number of current employees are hesitant, he said.
“I have heard from several employees who say Stewart’s won’t even allow them to discuss the lawsuit, which I believe is a violation of the National Labor Relations Act,” he said.
Stewart’s declined to respond to the allegation, citing company policy not to comment on pending or ongoing litigation.