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Long-running Stewart's wage lawsuit near settlement

Long-running Stewart's wage lawsuit near settlement

Hundreds of current, former employees in line for small payments for unpaid wages
Long-running Stewart's wage lawsuit near settlement
Stewart's Shops 337th store, located at 51 Luther Forest Blvd. in Malta, is shown in this Gazette file photo from Jan. 11, 2017.
Photographer: Marc Schultz / Gazette Photographer

BINGHAMTON — A payday may finally be coming for hundreds or even thousands of current and former employees of Stewart’s Shops who say the company deprived them of pay they were entitled to.

Five years and 51 weeks after the class-action lawsuit was filed, a hearing on a proposed settlement is scheduled to be held on Jan. 2 before a federal judge in Binghamton.

There’s always a chance of further delay — the hearing already has been postponed once, from Sept. 17 — and the payout is unlikely to be very much, as the pot of money to be divided among the employees will be less than $450,000, after attorney and administrator fees are deducted.

Neither Stewart’s nor the attorney for employees of the Malta-based convenience store chain would discuss the agreement with The Daily Gazette before Judge Thomas McAvoy approves it. But both sides seem to agree that settling the matter is the best option after nearly six years.

On Jan. 9, 2014, Albany-area law firm Hacker Murphy sued Stewart’s on behalf of Holly Gregory, an hourly employee at a store near Watertown. Astrid Halten, who worked at a Stewart’s in New Lebanon, and Matthew Potter, who worked at a Saratoga location, joined the case as named plaintiffs in April 2014; their attorneys sought and won class-action status for thousands of unnamed Stewart’s Shops employees who had been treated similarly.

Among the allegations were that Stewart's:

  • Required off-duty workers to come in for store meetings but did not give them call-in pay mandated by state law;
  • Required workers to arrive before their shift started and/or stay after it ended to ensure a smooth transition between employees on the two shifts, but did not pay them overtime for this, as required by federal law;
  • Didn't provide uniform maintenance pay;
  • Denied workers the meal breaks required by state law;
  • Paid less than state and federal minimum wage;
  • Didn't provide mandatory disclosure statements.

The lawsuit dragged on through numerous motions, with rulings going in favor and against both sides. 

In November 2019, Stewart’s Shops maintains its policies and practices comply with state and federal law; the plaintiffs’ attorneys, now working for E. Stewart Jones Hacker Murphy, maintain otherwise.

The class action lawsuit is down to two points of action — unpaid overtime work and unpaid attendance at call-in meetings  — each with separate classes of affected workers.

Class one, those not paid overtime, consists of the three named plaintiffs and 146 unnamed plaintiffs who opted into the class.

The size of class two, those not paid for the meetings, won’t be known until the deadline to opt in is reached later this month. More than 33,000 notices were sent out to potential members of this class.

The proposed settlement, submitted to the court in May 2019, calls for a payment by Stewart’s of not more than $675,000. The three named plaintiffs would get at least $5,000 each, while the opt-ins would get at least $200 each. But how much more is impossible to calculate at this point, as it would be determined by a claims administrator using a formula based on length of employment.

The proposed allocation is: 

  • $5,000 service awards to each of the three named plaintiffs;
  • $100,000 to be divided among class one plaintiffs, both named and opt-in;
  • $225,000 for plaintiffs' attorneys' fees and costs;
  • The claims administrator's fees and costs, an amount yet to be determined;
  • The remainder to be divided among class two members, through a formula based on the number of weeks they worked in the period covered by the settlement — Jan. 8, 2008, to Dec. 31, 2018 — with a minimum payment of $200.

Judge McAvoy must approve terms of the settlement. Attorneys for both sides have submitted paperwork advocating for this, explaining that it is “appropriate, fair, just and adequate.”

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