After avoiding the limelight for decades, New York State’s manual worker pay frequency law has taken center stage.
Specifically, New York Labor Law (NYLL) § 191(1)(a) requires private employers to pay manual workers weekly, rather than semi-monthly. As we have previously reported, the law is broadly applied to cover not only manual laborers in the traditional sense of the term but to a wide range of physical work, including retail, food preparation, home care, and more.
Ever since a New York appellate court equipped manual workers with a private right of action, pay frequency claims have surged, with recent cases proving difficult for employers to dismiss at the outset. Unless and until a different appellate court reverses course, employers can expect these actions to keep rolling in.
Surge in Claims After Vega
Until recently, enforcement of the pay frequency law was left to the New York Department of Labor (NYDOL), which imposed modest penalties for pay frequency violations. In the 2019 case Vega v. CM & Associates Construction Management LLC, however, a New York Appellate Division Court held that § 191 permits employees to seek liquidated damages for the untimely payment of wages, even if the wages are paid in full. The Vega decision equipped manual workers with a private right of action and spawned an influx of litigation in this area.
Employers that violate the pay frequency law must pay the full amount of unpaid wages and may be liable for liquidated damages equal to 100% of untimely-paid wages, as well as interest, costs, and attorneys’ fees. (Certain employers with at least 1,000 workers may request that the NYDOL grant an exemption to the weekly-pay requirement.) For those covered by the law, New York’s six-year statute of limitations means pay frequency claims could continue to mount.
Manual Workers Defined Broadly
While the NYLL defines “manual worker” as “a mechanic, workingman or laborer,” the NYDOL imposes a more contemporary and expansive definition, interpreting “manual workers” to include those who spend at least 25% of their working time engaged in physical labor. Physical labor can include countless tasks, including stocking shelves, standing or walking for long periods of time, preparing food, styling hair, cleaning a workplace, and providing care for others. Therefore, a wide array of jobs, from retail to home care workers, could be covered under the pay frequency law. Courts undertake factual, case-by-case inquiries to determine whether a plaintiff is considered a manual worker.
Federal Courts Follow Suit
Federal courts in New York have uniformly followed the Vega ruling by allowing claims brought under § 191(1)(a) to proceed. They have rejected arguments that were once thought to be potential hurdles, such as a plaintiff’s lack of standing for failure to identify a concrete harm. Unless and until an appellate court retreats from Vega, pay frequency claims will likely continue to advance through the courts.
To avoid costly litigation, covered New York employers are advised to evaluate whether they employ manual workers as the term is defined by the NYDOL and to consider revising their pay frequency practices as applicable.