Six former Mobile Housing Board employees were named as plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed Sept. 26 in U.S. District Court.
Ty Criswell, Ronald Coffman, Eric Knight, Samuel McCord, Denisa Peacock and Joe Frank Smiley Jr. claim in the suit that MHB knowingly withheld regular, overtime and on-call pay while the six were working as maintenance supervisors for the board.
The plaintiffs are some of the 16 MHB and four Mobile Development Authority employees relieved of their duties last month. While the filing also asks for their jobs back, plaintiffs’ attorney Daniel Hannan said it’s a coincidence, as the lawsuit had been in the works before the plaintiffs lost their jobs, he said.
MHB Executive Director Dwayne Vaughn recently cited a lack of federal funding and budgetary constraints as reasons for the layoffs, but McCord cited bad money management among leadership while Criswell cited discord from management for failing to be “yes men.”
Vaughn said last month he regretted the move, but added the board would be moving to a sector-based maintenance system instead of a site-based system. The new system will be more efficient and require fewer employees, he explained.
The suit alleges a violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act because the housing board “has had a uniform policy and practice of consistently requiring the plaintiffs to work ‘on-call’ and/or ‘off the clock’ without pay and has required employees to work over 40 hours a week without paying them for every hour worked and without paying them overtime compensation due to them.”
Hannan added that the plaintiffs would also show up early for work in order to help get maintenance teams together at various worksites, but MHB wouldn’t pay them for coming in early and the plaintiffs never punched a clock. The plaintiffs would often work through lunch without pay, Hannan said, as well as after hours at night.
“What the Housing Board was trying to do is say they worked 40 hours a week,” he said.
The plaintiffs were never given a straight answer about whether they were hourly or salary, Hannan said. For example, he said McCord asked that specific question to supervisors and got two different answers. Hannan said because the plaintiffs were docked for time they spent at doctor’s appointments during the work day, they have to be considered non-exempt, or hourly employees.
“[The housing board] can’t have their cake and eat it too,” Hannan said. “If [the employees] are exempt then they can’t dock them for going to the doctor. You can’t just call them exempt.”
Plaintiffs weren’t paid for time they spent away from work for medical appointments, unless they took sick time or vacation time, according to the suit. Plaintiffs weren’t paid for time spent away from work on sick leave, unless they took sick leave and plaintiffs weren’t paid for time spent away from work on vacation, unless they took vacation, according to the suit.
He said the board also did not keep records of the time worked by the plaintiffs.
In addition, the plaintiffs would work on-call for an entire week every seventh week, according to the suit.
Plaintiffs were required to “on-call” all week, 24 hours a day and weren’t paid for the time, according to the suit.
“You can’t make somebody stay up all night working and doing business and not pay them,” Hannan said.
To further the argument that the plaintiffs were hourly employees, the suit alleges that “plaintiffs did not have any employees of their own and did not have the authority to hire, fire, promote, determine starting pay for, give pay raises to, or take disciplinary actions against employees of defendant.”
In an email sent Friday night, Vaughn said the housing board had no comment on the suit, as it had yet to see it.
Lagniappe reached Raymond Bell, the board’s attorney Monday morning but was awaiting answers at press time.
Meanwhile, low occupancy rates have been one of the factors that have led the MHB to receive lower-than-expected federal funding. Housing and Urban Development spokeswoman Gloria Shanahan said in a previous story that occupancy rates for MHB properties is currently around 67 percent. MHB lost a total of $2.5 million in 2013 and $9.7 million in 2014 due to low occupancy rates and proration.
MHB occupancy has taken a hit recently due to the vacation of all housing units at Josephine Allen before HUD was notified of a desire to demolish the complex, Shanahan said.