Photo: J. Albert Diaz/ALM Photo: J. Albert Diaz/ALM

Baggage handlers and maintenance workers at American Airlines were granted certification Tuesday in a class action suit claiming the company programmed its time clocks to round down and reduce the amount of time employees are credited with working.

The company’s timekeeping system credits workers for the period of time they are scheduled to work, but the system cuts off pay for those who put in a longer shift than scheduled, according to the suit. The suit claims violations of New Jersey’s Wage and Hour Law on behalf of American employees at Newark Liberty International Airport.

Chief Judge Jose Linares granted the plaintiffs’ motion to certify three subclasses of American employees who claimed they were denied full compensation for work performed. The subclasses were for those who claimed they were not paid for work performed before and after their scheduled shifts, while on the clock; during unpaid meal periods; and before clocking in or after clocking out.

The suit claims American configured its time clocks to round down and reduce the amount of time employees are credited with working, thereby depriving them of wages and overtime they are entitled to receive. But the system does not add time to workers who clock out early.

The suit also accuses American of improperly offering its hourly employees compensatory time in lieu of payments for overtime, and requesting that baggage handlers perform off-the-clock work before clocking in, after clocking out and during uncompensated meal breaks.

Nine named plaintiffs testified in depositions that American Airlines employees were required by managers to routinely arrive early and stay late to finish their work, to compensate for a shortage of labor, to attend meetings, and to complete training; that the timekeeping system defaulted to pay employees based only on their scheduled hours; and the amount of time for which employees performed work beyond their normal schedules and during meal periods ranges from one to four hours of uncompensated time each week.

The named plaintiffs are all paid by the hour at rates ranging from $11.69 to $41, according to a court filing.

American Airlines, which is headquartered in Fort Worth, Texas, argued that the plaintiffs’ claims cannot be resolved on a classwide basis because employees who would clock in early or clock out late spent that time socializing, drinking coffee, watching television or reading. But Linares said discovery should address whether American’s hourly employees engage in personal activities during the periods raised by plaintiffs, since some of the named plaintiffs disputed that assertion in depositions, and those allegations do not merit denying class certification.

In addition, even though there is some variation among class members concerning job performance, “the fact remains that the named plaintiffs allege that American had a company-wide policy in place at one location, i.e., Newark Liberty International Airport, to avoid paying its employees for all of the time that they worked. The fact that there will be individualized variations among the members of the putative class as to their reasons for working through meal breaks, for clocking in early or clocking out late, or for working off the clock, should not defeat the certification of this action as a class action,” Linares said.

Plaintiffs have maintained in court papers that there are at least 100 class members and that the class members’ claims exceed $5 million in the aggregate.

“We think this is a fantastic result for our guys. They were getting shorted anywhere from one to four hours per week,” said Brett Gallaway of McLaughlin & Stern in New York who represents the class along with Lee Shalov of the same firm.

Gallaway said the plaintiffs believe American’s timekeeping procedures are employed uniformly nationwide. However, the suit is brought only on behalf of New Jersey workers because the federal Fair Labor Standards Act exempts employees of common carriers such as American Airlines, he said. But New Jersey’s wage-and-hour laws grant specific protections to airline employees, said Gallaway.

According to Gallaway, American Airlines compensates employees who are shortchanged by the timekeeping system if they obtain approval from bosses. However, in practice, such requests are often denied, so that employees often fail to make a request, he said.

Jeffrey Kohn and Mark Robertson of O’Melveny & Myers in New York, who represent American Airlines, did not respond to a request for comment about the ruling. An American Airlines spokesman, Justin Franco, said the company would not comment.