Written by The Business Journal Staff
Valley attorney Steve Crass is scheduled to testify this week in Sacramento before the Assembly’s Labor and Employment Committee.
Crass is attempting to rewrite the state’s wage-and-hour pay statutes, which he labels “overly technical and confusing” and one state legislator calls “outrageous.”
In recent years, those regulations have sparked a tidal wave of lawsuits accusing Valley employers of short-changing their employees for meal periods and rest breaks.
Crass, a 42-year-old employment law attorney at Baker Manock and Jensen, frequently defends his clients against such claims.
“The action usually starts with a demand letter from an out-of-area plaintiff’s attorney,” Crass said. The letter will demand a large financial settlement, backed by the threat of a lawsuit, he added.
Any employer with employees can become a target, Crass said, “from hospitals and medical offices to restaurants and dairies.”
In recent months, plaintiff attorneys have sued a number of Valley packinghouses, according to Crass, who compares the suits to Americans with Disabilities Act complaints.
“These cases are similar to the rash of ADA-related lawsuits,” Crass said. “But the settlements in wage-and-hour cases are generally much higher. Some can reach to seven figures.”
Crass said plaintiff attorneys take advantage of current California employment law to “stack” violation claims in these suits — parlaying a simple missed meal break violation into an additional incorrect wage statement violation that, when combined with dozens or hundreds of employees, can cause potential damages to skyrocket.
“The ‘guilty of one/guilty of three’ framework makes these wage-and-hour lawsuits lucrative and a very attractive business model for plaintiff’s attorneys,” Crass wrote in a recent Fresno Bee opinion piece.
So, with the help and support of local farmer Paul Betancourt, who’s written about the issue, and Julie Griffiths, a Sacramento insider currently battling the tsunami of ADA-related lawsuits, Crass began drafting revisions to current wage-and-hour statutes.
The effort picked up steam when Crass, Betancourt and Griffiths teamed up with a statewide group called Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse (CALA) and then Orange County Assemblyman Don Wagner.
The final result was Assembly Bill 1948, which Wagner introduced into the Assembly earlier this year.
The bill had its first hearing before the Labor and Employment Committee on Wednesday (after press time). With Valley Assemblyman Jim Patterson acting as the committee’s vice chair, Crass said he’s hopeful the legislation will pass out of the committee hearing.
“I’m not sure the Democrats will embrace this bill,” Crass said. “But it’s a good place to start. This is a real opportunity to create meaningful change.”
Assemblyman Roger Hernandez (D-West Covina), who chairs the Assembly’s Labor and Employment Committee, has yet to take a public position on AB 1948.
“Wage-and-hour laws are intended to protect workers, including some of the most vulnerable and lowest-wage earners, from getting short-changed for their labor,” said Wagner, who called the current statutes “outrageous.”
“Unfortunately, instead of a shield to protect workers, predatory personal injury lawyers have been using these laws as a sword to hold up small businesses,” the assemblyman said.
Pointing out that the “victims” in the class action suits often receive “but a pittance” of the overall settlement, Wagner adds: “California has some of the most onerous wage-and -hour laws in the country. Violations of California wage-and-hour laws often give rise to individual and class-action lawsuits under the Private Attorneys General Act of 2004 (PAGA).”
Wagner noted that PAGA lawsuits increased more than 400 percent from 2005 to 2013.
Crass spends a great deal of his time defending his clients against these wage-and-hour lawsuits.
A Merced native, Crass served as a prosecutor and defense counsel while spending nearly a decade in the military, where he was deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2014, he ran for the 16th Congressional District seat currently held by Jim Costa, placing second in the primary to eventual Republican candidate Johnny Tacherra.
Although he’s not ruling out another political run, Crass said he enjoys his work in the legal arena. He’s been with Baker Manock and Jensen since 2011 and currently leads the prestigious firm’s employment law department.
Crass believes that AB 1948 will enable employers who make an honest mistake “to be able to quickly and more readily make amends with their employees without the prospect of crushing litigation and penalties that all too often end up with stagnating wages and Valley business contemplating layoffs, or worse, being forced to close their doors.”
Rather than creating a new law, AB 1948 amends a current statute “to make the penalty better fit the violation,” Crass said.
If the bill passes, it would limit the penalty for a violation of a meal period to the penalty contained in the statute that deals with meal periods, which Crass said prevents “a clever attorney from alleging multiple other statutory violations for the same alleged missed meal period.”
The bill would also limit the penalties to one year instead of three years — which Crass said is consistent with all other statutory penalties contained in the labor code.
Wagner needs bipartisan support in order for AB 1948 to become law. “If we don’t listen to each other and work together,” he said, “California will continue to wear the label of the nation’s worst judicial hellhole and not be a welcome place for business.”
And while he may not have been elected to Congress, Crass will take full advantage of the spotlight provided by this week’s hearings.
“I couldn’t be more excited about the prospect of being part of legislation that could save jobs and businesses,” he said. “This has been an interesting way for me to advocate on behalf of people in the Valley.”
George Lurie | Reporter can be reached at:
490-3464 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org