Oil Spill Support Workers Claim BP Denied OT Pay

Law360 - Leigh Kamping-Carder

Three former office staffers have accused BP PLC of denying overtime compensation to a proposed class of support workers who helped with the energy giant's response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Jon Brewer, Nathan Cohen and Quentin Doyle filed a complaint Thursday in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, alleging BP, its subcontractor The Response Group LLC and TRG's president violated the Fair Labor Standards Act.

The plaintiffs claim that BP and TRG, an emergency response consulting firm, intentionally misclassified the plaintiffs and other disaster response workers as independent contractors, denying them overtime compensation and other employment benefits.

The support workers, who were paid a daily rate for 12-hour shifts, typically worked 14 days in a row, followed by four days off, the complaint says. In one period, the workers claim they worked for several weeks straight without a day off.

TRG required the workers to sign employment contracts releasing the company from related claims, including ones related to “environmental hazards,” and attempted to be released from claims under the FLSA as well, the plaintiffs allege.

They are seeking to certify a collective class of BP and TRG independent contractors. Eight additional individuals who said they worked for the companies across the Gulf states have already opted in to the putative class, according to court records.

The suit seeks unpaid overtime compensation, an equal amount of liquidated damages, attorneys' fees and court costs.

A representative for BP declined to comment on pending litigation. TRG did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Friday.

The oil spill support workers were stationed at command centers in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, where they performed duties such as data entry, checking equipment in and out, and taking inventory, according to the complaint.

The work required no formal training or skills, and BP and TRG controlled the workers' day-to-day duties, the plaintiffs alleged. The companies set compensation levels, schedules and uniform requirements, and the workers needed their approval on time sheets, expense reports, time off and payroll, the suit says.

“These workers were relieved to have a job, especially during a recession,” said plaintiffs' attorney Justin M. Swartz of Outten & Golden LLP. “BP and TRG were well-positioned to take advantage of them and, our clients allege, did so by denying them substantial overtime wages they earned.”

Brewer and Cohen have also lodged separate retaliation claims, alleging that TRG interrogated them, installed spyware on their computers and ultimately fired them after learning they had retained counsel to file the current suit.

Following the April 20 blast in the Gulf of Mexico, BP hired support workers from across the U.S., the complaint says. At the height of its response efforts in July, BP was relying on more than 45,000 people, the company said.

The plaintiffs' attorneys said they are continuing to investigate BP and TRG for other possible employment violations in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.

Brewer and Cohen, both residents of California, and Florida resident Doyle said they began working for BP and TRG in mid-May. Brewer worked on cleanup projects in Venice, La., Port St. Joe, Fla., and Pensacola, Fla. Cohen worked in Venice, and Doyle worked in Pensacola and Panama City Fla.

The plaintiffs are represented by Justin M. Swartz, Molly Brooks and Dana Sussman of Outten & Golden LLP, Sam J. Smith, Marguerite M. Longoria and Christine M. Jalbert of Burr & Smith LLP, and Dawn M. Barrios, Bruce S. Kingsdorf and Zachary L. Wool of Barrios Kingsdorf & Casteix LLP.

Counsel information for the defendants was not immediately available.

The case is Brewer et al. v. BP PLC et al., case number 2:11-cv-00401, in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana.