SAN JOSE, Calif. (CN) – A federal judge indicated she would not allow a landmark minimum-wage case to move forward, saying she was inclined to dismiss as untimely.
U.S. District Judge Beth Labson Freeman told hotel worker Ian McCray’s lawyer that his client’s failure to file a case before the statute of limitations ran out essentially doomed his case, during a hearing on Thursday.
“It’s the death knell of your complaint,” Freeman told James Pagano, the attorney representing McCray.
McCray was an employee at Hotel Marriot when he noticed that his wages were lower than the minimum wage recently enacted by the city of San Jose. When he went to his union, Unite Here! Local 19, to file a grievance, they told him he had no grounds.
He gave up temporarily, but eventually filed a lawsuit. Judging by Freeman’s remarks at Thursday’s hearing, however, he sought recourse too late.
“We might as well not have statute of limitations,” Freeman said. “He had all the tools to go to a lawyer.”
Pagano said McCray was not sophisticated enough to realize he had a viable claim and should and the statute of limitations should be excused. He further said federal law was thin when it came to statute of limitations, to which Freeman stridently disagreed.
“You are untethered to the law when you make those statements,” she said. “Federal authority is against you, it’s not thin.”
In terms of the merits, Freeman said McCray had a solid case but the technical problems are too large to overcome.
McCray originally sued Marriott Hotel Services seeking to strike a collective bargaining agreement between the company and the hotel workers’ union that set the minimum wage at a slightly lower rate than the San Jose City Council-approved minimum wage.
Marriott says the San Jose minimum wage ordinances contain a provision that explicitly allows a waiver for collective bargaining agreements. In other words, if a company and a union agree on a wage, the company doesn’t have to adhere to the minimum-wage requirements set forth by the city.
“The city’s agency charged with issuing binding interpretation of the ordinance has consistently interpreted the ordinance to provide for a CBA opt-out,” Marriott says in its motion for summary judgment.
McCray argues Marriott’s interpretation of the local ordinance is overly broad, insisting that the language of the ordinance only grants a waiver when it is required by federal law, which is not the case in the present instance.
The minimum wage fight has large implications for the labor movement in general, which has focused on raising wages for the working poor as one of its central tools to combat inequality.
Several cities in California, including San Jose, San Francisco and Los Angeles, have adopted ordinances that raise the minimum wage to $15, typically in increments of about $1.50 per year.
However, most of these cities have included provisions that waive collective bargaining agreements. Critics dismiss these waivers as a cynical attempt by labor unions to render themselves the low-cost option in cities, thereby driving up membership and increasing dues.
But some believe the unions are exploiting the workers they claim to represent by allowing them to paid less than the going rate. Others argue more work for union members can only be beneficial and could make unionization more acceptable to the business community.
During the hearing, Pagano said he would explore appealing Freeman’s decision.