A federal judge ruled this week that a Texas mechanic who worked on restoring a vintage airplane in Auburn can move forward with his effort to recover wages on a dual track — under state and federal law — against the company that owned the plane and the company that hired him to restore it.
A year ago, U.S. Chief District Judge Nancy Torresen allowed Christopher Venegas, 46, of Wichita Falls to invite other mechanics who worked on the project with him to join his lawsuit under federal law. Venegas came to Maine three years ago to work as an air frame mechanic at a hangar at the Auburn-Lewiston Municipal Airport.
At issue is whether Venegas and his co-workers should have been paid as independent contractors, as the defendants in his complaint contend, or as employees, who were entitled to overtime pay, as Venegas argues.
In his complaint, filed in June 2014 in U.S. District Court in Portland, Venegas claimed he was paid straight time for all hours worked, including those in excess of 40 per week. According to the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, employees must be paid overtime wages at a rate of time-and-a-half for any hours exceeding 40 per week, the complaint said.
Venegas, and most of the other dozens of workers on the project, were paid only straight time despite working 63½-hour weeks on average, as required by the companies that hired them, according to the complaint.
Venegas was hired by Global Aircraft Service of Addison, Texas, which controlled, along with Lufthansa Technik North America Holding Corp. of Tulsa, the restoration of the "Star of Tigris," a version of the Lockheed Constellation known as a Starliner, Lufthansa Airline's flagship aircraft from the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Global Aircraft and Lufthansa are co-defendants named in Venegas' lawsuit.
In a Feb. 5, 2015, ruling, Torresen granted Venegas' motion to certify the suit as a collective action under federal law, meaning other similarly situated metal specialists who worked on the aircraft between June 24, 2011, and Feb. 5, could join his lawsuit under a so-called "opt-in" clause.
In her 2015 ruling, Torresen also ordered Venegas' former employer to provide the names and contact information of the other workers to Venegas' attorneys in an effort to ensure that all of the workers who want to be included can participate. A notice of Venegas' claim, and that option for other workers, was required to be posted at the job site, Torresen had ruled.
Now, a year after that decision, Torresen has ruled that Venegas' complaint can move forward under Maine law as a class action, meaning all of his co-workers will be notified that they have been included in his claim unless they exercise an "opt-out" clause.
Both the state and federal claims are aimed at recovering back wages owed for overtime, said Nicholas Woodfield, Venegas' attorney with The Employment Law Group in Washington, D.C. The state law has a longer statute of limitations, he said, potentially enabling more workers to become part of the lawsuit.
Torresen also ruled this week against the defendants' motion to rescind the federal certification of a collective action that allowed Venegas' fellow workers to sign on to his lawsuit.
Asked for comment, Woodfield said Friday, “Mr. Venegas and his co-workers take pride in their work on this plane. They worked long hours for several years to make it great again, and when GAS and LTNA called them independent contractors, it took away from what they had built, day-by-day, year-by-year. They wanted their role to be acknowledged, and now they are one step closer.”
A spokesman for Lufthansa could not be reached for comment.
Woodfield said he believes between 50 and 130 others participated in the project as sheet metal workers who could potentially become plaintiffs in Venegas' complaint.
Venegas, who was married with four children, moved to Maine in February 2013 where he was housed in a local apartment by the company. He was ordered to wear a company-supplied T-shirt and use company email addresses for work-related correspondence, according to court papers. The company did not withhold Social Security or taxes from his paychecks.
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