By Dan Steinberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 15, 2009
Six former Washington Redskins ticket sales agents have filed a lawsuit against the team, arguing that they're owed tens of thousands of dollars in overtime pay. The Redskins are contesting the suit in a private arbitration proceeding, saying they didn't have to pay the former employees overtime because of a federal exemption for amusement and recreation workers.
Rockville attorney James Rubin, who is representing the agents, also accused the Redskins of illegally retaliating against his clients, who were fired or resigned during the overtime dispute, a claim the Redskins emphatically denied.
The dispute began last year when the agents were switched from salaries to hourly wages with overtime. That change followed a July 2008 federal court ruling in a similar case involving the NBA's New Orleans Hornets.
A U.S. District Court in Louisiana ruled that Hornets employees were not exempt from overtime rules. The Hornets and other sports teams, including the Redskins, have argued that their employees fall under the recreational worker exemption.
The Redskins disagreed with the district court's ruling, Redskins general counsel David Donovan said Friday, but changed their sales staff's pay structure to protect themselves against further legal risks. Donovan spoke to the ticket agents at the time, explaining why the changes were being made and pointing out that the team disagreed with the court's ruling.
The team said the sales staff's new pay rates would be equivalent to the old salaries, which Rubin disputed. The Redskins also declined to pay the employees for past overtime hours after the team changed the pay structure.
"They knew what they were doing was wrong," Rubin said. "They could have come clean and just paid."
"We don't believe we were wrong; that's why we didn't pay back overtime," Donovan said.
Rubin said he notified the team by letter in October that it owed the sales agents tens of thousands of dollars of overtime pay. The next day, he said, the Redskins fired one of his clients, which the team said was unrelated to Rubin's letter.
Around that time, the team said, it was engaging in a reduction of force across the company, including in the ticket office.
"We categorically deny that we took any job action against any employee in response to any allegation concerning overtime," Donovan said. "We did not know the identities of [Rubin's] clients at the time we took those job actions. No person had told us they were going to bring any action. His demand letter identified nobody."
Rubin said he would argue that the firing was tied to the letter.
"You get a demand letter, and fire a lead sales person the next day?" he said. "The timing of that is extremely suspicious."
The former Redskins employees, who worked in both the regular and premium ticket sales divisions, filed the action in a private arbitration proceeding as required by their contracts, requesting more than $185,000 in back overtime pay, unpaid commissions, penalties, attorneys fees and interest.
The sides will submit written arguments to arbitrator Brian S. Harvey on the amusement exemption and other issues by a December deadline; if Harvey allows the case to continue, a hearing is scheduled for April.
"We believe we have always properly characterized our employees under the labor laws, and we believe they are in fact exempt from overtime," Donovan said. "We are confident we're going to prevail in this arbitration."
Harvey in July also certified the case as a collective-action suit and ordered the Redskins to provide Rubin with a list of former and current ticket sales reps, who would also be eligible to join in the case. The Redskins complied. The statute of limitations for overtime cases is either two or three years depending on if the violation is willful, and several dozen current and former agents are thus eligible to join the suit, Rubin said.