In 2020 a furniture company called Flexsteel Industries laid off about 300 workers at its plants in Dubuque, Iowa and Starkville, Mississippi. According to a class action lawsuit filed on behalf of the employees, Flexsteel violated federal law by failing to provide either severance pay or 60 days’ notice.
The law in question is the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act of 1988, better known as the WARN Act. Oddly, the law does not provide for enforcement by the U.S. Department of Labor. Instead, workers must usually take a non-compliant employer to court. They have done so many times and have often won substantial settlements.
WARN Act class action lawsuits are the latest category of private litigation to be added to Violation Tracker. The newly posted update to the database includes more than 100 WARN settlements totaling over $225 million over the past two decades. About half of the settlements were for $1 million or more. That includes the $1.3 million won by the Flexsteel workers.
Overall, the settlements range from $100,000 to $35 million, with the highest amount coming in a 2011 case involving the now-defunct semiconductor company Qimonda. The second largest was $15 million, in a case involving Taylor, Bean & Whitaker Mortgage Corp.
These settlements, like about three-quarters of the cases collected, came while the company was in bankruptcy proceedings. Many employers mistakenly thought that a bankruptcy filing exempted them from complying with the provisions of the WARN Act.
Although bankruptcy cases can drag on for years, victims of WARN Act non-compliance are often able to receive more timely relief by filing what are known as adversary proceedings. These are the equivalent of civil lawsuits brought in federal district courts and can get resolved much sooner than other bankruptcy matters.
While most WARN Act cases are brought against direct employers, some of the settlements involve private equity firms that controlled the company. For example, in 2019 Apollo Global Management and a human resources service paid $3 million to resolve a case brought by about 1,000 workers laid off from Apollo’s portfolio company Classic Party Rentals.
Additional WARN Act cases are making their way through the courts. Tesla is the target of one of those suits, filed earlier this year on behalf of those terminated as part of the company’s practice of periodically weeding out workers considered to have performance issues. Tesla is arguing that the workers should not be able to bring a class action, given that they signed employment agreements providing for the use of arbitration to resolve disputes.
Some employers have tried to argue that layoffs that took place during the pandemic should not be covered by the WARN Act, given that the law has an exception for natural disasters. A federal appeals court, however, ruled in June that Covid should not be lumped together with events such as earthquakes and floods mentioned in the legislation.
If the U.S. economy continues to move in the direction of a downturn, layoffs will become more common and the protections of the WARN Act—and WARN class actions—will help workers deal with the slump
Note: The Violation Tracker update also includes the addition of 10,000 wage and hour cases brought by the California Labor Commissioner’s Office over the past two decades.