BILLERICA — About a year ago, a worker sued a Billerica packaging company and the temporary employment agency that placed her there, claiming she was owed thousands of dollars in unpaid overtime. Now, with more employees expected to join the suit, the temp agency is offering to pay 25 cents on the dollar for any overtime they might be entitled to recover.
That, however, is not sitting well with lawyers and workers involved in the case, who protested Wednesday at the packaging company, Fulfillment America Inc., and delivered a letter demanding that former and current employees get all the overtime pay they are owed.
“I know as workers we have rights,” said Mercedes Mendez, who said she worked thousands of overtime hours over six years, but was not paid for it. “We want to see a change.”
The workers are among an increasing number who are reporting employers for violations of state and federal wage laws. Nationally, overtime violations investigated by the US Labor Department have jumped more than 35 percent since 2010.
Marcy Goldstein-Gelb, executive director of the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health, a group that advocates for worker rights and is involved in the Billerica protest, said that these increases coincide with the growth in the temporary workforce in Massachusetts in recent years. Many companies, she said, have turned to temporary agencies as a way to shield themselves from penalties if violations are found.
“In the last several years, we’ve seen all kinds of schemes, which appear to be strategies for employers to avoid core responsibilities — paying for workers’ compensation, unemployment, overtime, and health and safety responsibilities — even though we know they’re still responsible for those things by law,” she said. “There’s a whole wave of underground employers that’s been created just to make workers vulnerable.”
The Billerica case is a prime example, she said. Mendez, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, said she was hired by Job Done LLC to work at Fulfillment America, where she packed promotional materials for Fulfillment America’s customers, which include the Dunkin’ Donuts and Subway restaurant chains. Most mornings, she and other workers were shuttled by van from their homes in East Boston to a Billerica office park where they worked more than 12 hours a day.
Mendez left her job at Fulfillment in 2012 after she became pregnant, she said. She was earning $8.50 an hour at the time. Under federal and state law, employees are entitled to 1.5 times their regular hourly pay after working more than 40 hours a week.
Thomas L. Smith, a lawyer who is representing Mendez, said Job Done provided workers to Fulfillment America for a fee and was responsible for paying them. The lawsuit, filed in Middlesex Superior Court in December 2012, said Job Done manipulated pay stubs to hide that employees were working more than 40 hours a week.
When employees questioned why they weren’t getting overtime, Job Done supervisors told them Fulfillment America did not pay the temp agency enough to offer overtime, said Smith, executive director of Justice At Work, a nonprofit legal services group in Boston.
Smith said he expects as many as 300 workers, who are collectively owed “hundreds of thousands” in back overtime, to join the suit. They are only allowed to collect wages going back two years, under state law, Smith said, although a judge can award them triple damages plus interest and legal fees if they win the case.
“There was a lot more overtime cheated from these workers than they can collect,” said Smith.
A lawyer for Job Done LLC could not be reached for comment.
John A. Donovan III, a lawyer for Fulfillment America, said in a statement that the company has “always complied with any applicable wage and overtime laws.” The case has yet to be certified by the court as a class action, he said, and pertains only to Mendez.
“She is an employee of a subcontractor, Job Done,” Donovan said. “Fulfillment America has no knowledge of any issues she was having with her employer, Job Done.”
Yet last week, workers placed at Fulfillment America by the temp agency received letters from Job Done offering to pay 25 percent of the overtime pay to which they may be entitled. The letter also contained a release for employees to sign if they accepted, stating that they “forever discharge” both companies from “all claims relating to overtime pay.”
“This amount is less than the amount you may be able to recover,” said a copy of the letter obtained by the Globe, “but recognizes that this is a disputed claim and Job Done has limited finances and no insurance coverage to fund any settlement.”
On Wednesday morning, a handful of former employees went to the Fulfillment America plant with their lawyers to deliver a letter saying that they wanted to be paid fully for overtime hours they worked. Alcides Villegas, 41, was among them.
The native of Honduras said he worked seven years packaging signs and promotional materials for Dunkin’ Donuts locations. Villegas said he would often work as many as 70 hours a week, at $8 an hour, using the money to support himself and his three children, ages 6, 9, and 21, who live in East Boston.
Villegas said he went to a meeting to hear more about the lawsuit about two months ago, and shortly after his supervisor learned about it, he found himself unemployed.
“They never called me back to work again,” Villegas said.
Brian Healy, vice president of operations at Fulfillment America, met Villegas and a handful of other workers at the front door of the corporate offices.
Healy listened as they asked for back pay and Villegas asked for his job back. Then Healy accepted the letter and local police asked the group to leave the property.
Megan Woolhouse can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org