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FMG Law Blog Line

Employers Beware: Payroll Mistakes Are Costly and Self-Audits Will Help Minimize Risk

Posted on: July 1st, 2019

By: Janet Barringer

A six-figure fine recently imposed on an employer by the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office for wage & hour violation is an eye-opener for a few reasons. First, the financial penalty underscores employers must regularly examine their payroll systems to ensure all employees are coded with the correct rate of pay. Second, employers must communicate with their payroll providers on a regular basis to ensure all employees are coded with the correct rate of pay in compliance with all federal and state wage & hour laws. Third, errors by a payroll company are not necessarily defenses to the employer for inaccurate pay. Regularly conducting a self-audit is an important measure for the employer to help eliminate the risk of a wage & hour violation. A summary of the circumstances leading to one employer’s recent six-figure fine for wage & hour violation is as follows.

On May 23, 2019, Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office (the Commonwealth) imposed a fine of $250,000 on Eversource Energy Service Co. (“Eversource”) after concluding the company violated Massachusetts’ Wage & Hour Law. The Commonwealth determined Eversource underpaid approximately 3,000 of its workers. The Commonwealth’s investigation revealed Eversource paid many workers the incorrect rates for hourly, overtime, Sunday, nighttime, and emergency work. Eversource failed to enter codes for the differing rates in its payroll system, resulting in errors in processing the various hour and pay rates. Eversource discovered issues with its payroll system prior to the start of the Commonwealth’s investigation and had already undertaken efforts to fully compensate its employees when the investigation began. Such corrective measures did not absolve Eversource of liability.

Moreover, as a result of the Commonwealth’s investigation, Eversource conducted a comprehensive self-audit to determine the amount of underpayment, the number of employees impacted and whether wages remained outstanding. The audit revealed Eversource underpaid workers at least $828,000 from June to December 2016. The company paid back all amounts owed and allowed workers overpaid as a result of the payroll system errors to keep those funds. Eversource also agreed to pay the $250,000 fine to resolve the Commonwealth’s investigation.

Eversource’s implemented what turned out to be a faulty payroll system in 2016. The company claimed complexities of the software’s coding system caused errors in assigning rates of pay. Though Eversource made efforts to swiftly compensate employees incorrectly paid and cooperated with the Commonwealth’s investigation, Eversource nonetheless incurred a hefty fine. Moving forward, Eversource will work with its payroll technology provider to prevent this issue from reoccurring.

The recent investigation of Eversource and resulting financial penalty reveal employers must regularly examine their payroll systems to ensure all employees are coded with the correct rate of pay.  Even if employees are coded incorrectly due to an error on the part of the payroll provider, the employer is not necessarily shielded from liability. Accordingly, employers must communicate with their payroll providers on a regular basis in order to remain compliant with all federal and state wage & hour laws. Conducting regular self-audits should help the employer eliminate wage and hour violations.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Janet Barringer in the National Labor & Employment Practice Section at [email protected].

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