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Family Employers: There Is No Such Thing As Voluntary Work By Staff

Three former staff members - a trainer, a bodyguard, and a tutor - sued their former employer, a Qatari Royal couple, for unpaid wages. The couple lives in the Upper East Side in one of the largest homes in Manhattan.

The sister of the Qatar emir and the sister's husband allegedly forced staff members to work as many as 100 hours per week without paying them overtime. The plaintiffs allege they had to work seven days per week and had to stay awake until all four of the Qatari Royal couple's children were asleep.

They accuse their employers of violating New York state and federal employment laws. Lawyers for the plaintiffs have also filed a charge of "prior retaliation" against the couple.

The couple required staff to sign a contract that stated, "While traveling with the principal (i.e., the family), days off will not be granted. During these times, all staff is required to be on duty at all times without extra pay."

Lawyers for the plaintiffs believe other staff members were similarly mistreated and are considering asking that the case be ordered a class action by the court. Counsel for the defendants asked the judge to order the plaintiffs to cease communication with the couple's current staff, leading the plaintiff's lawyers to allege that the defendants are trying to discourage other staff from making claims and prevent them from learning about and joining the lawsuit. Rob Crilly "Agent of Qatar royals sent 'alarming' messages to ex-staff over employment lawsuit" (March 05, 2019).

Commentary and Checklist

Family employers must not prevent staff from speaking to each other about unfair wage practices. Doing so could violate Chapter 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which applies to all employers, or state or local wage and hour laws. If you learn that a staff member has raised wage and hour concerns with others, do not retaliate against the staffer. Instead, ask what his or her complaints are and immediately work to address any illegal or unfair practices.

The "contract" that the Qatari couple forced their staff to sign saying they would not receive overtime is illegal under federal and state wage and hour laws. It reduces the pay of the workers to below minimum wage and ignores an employer's overtime obligations.

Family employers should never ask, or even allow, staff to perform "voluntary" work. Pay staff for any hours they are at work or with the family, and do not allow staff to remain in the workplace, especially performing tasks, when they are off the clock. If you find out that staff did perform job duties outside of their normal hours and were not paid for that time, immediately remedy the situation by providing staff with back wages and overtime, if they are non-exempt.

Some examples of worktime that staff must be paid for include:

  • Required meetings, whether during or outside of the times staff is normally scheduled to work;
  • Lunch or other break periods if staff performs any work duties during that period—make sure that staff is relieved of all duties during break periods required under state law;
  • Time that staff is "engaged to wait," meaning staff is required to be present at the workplace but does not have any tasks to perform;
  • Time that staff is required to travel with the family, even if they are not performing other work tasks at the time;
  • Time that staff is "on-call"; and
  • Team building or other activities that staff is required to attend.
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