In Camara v. Attorney General, the state’s highest court determined that an employer could not make wage deductions when the employer had unilateral power to determine the employee’s negligence and the amount of the damages. Michael Camara is Vice President of ABC Disposal, a garbage company based in New Bedford, and the employer in question.
In this case, truck drivers for ABC Disposal Service were given a choice after an accident. They could accept disciplinary action for causing the accident, or they could pay the company for the damages incurred. Payment was made through weekly payroll deductions with the employee’s written consent. The deductions were small enough so the employee still earned at least the minimum wage each week.
The Massachusetts Supreme Court determined that these deductions were not allowed because the company determined who was at fault for the accident and set a dollar amount on the damages. A company safety office would investigate the accident and report his findings. The supervisory safety manager would then determine who was at fault and the amount of damages in the case. Employees had no voice in these proceedings. In many cases, the safety manager would determine that the employee was at fault. The employee was then given the choice to repay the damages, or face disciplinary action and possibly termination.
The company’s attorneys argued that this encouraged their drivers to safely operate the company vehicles. The state argued that it was an illegal payroll deduction – and the state won.
In this case, the court agreed with the Massachusetts Attorney General, that an employer could make a deduction only when there are due process protections in place for the employee.
This ruling still permits a Massachusetts employer to make deductions in certain situations, with the employee’s written permission, including:
A loan or wage advance that is not disputed by the employee
Theft, embezzlement or misappropriation established in court
Damages a court orders the employee to pay to the employer
Supporters of this decision point out that employers like ABC are not impartial when assigning blame to employees. The employer has a huge monetary incentive to find the employee at fault, and to inflate the damages. The worker has no representative to present his side of the issue, so there is a potential for huge abuse. Opponents of this decision argue that it will make it more expensive for employers to do business in the state.
Under this decision, a Massachusetts employer can “probably” still recover an accidental overpayment to an employee, according to Vanessa Hackett, an attorney with Littler Mendelson.
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