OAKLAND, Calif. (PAI)-What happens if a city trains a police officer on condition she stays five years on the job, but she resigns after two years and it docks her for training costs? Does that push her below the minimum wage – and is it legal?

The answers to those last questions, a federal appellate court said Nov. 19, are “no,” and “yes.” That could open the way for private employers to do the same thing.

The case of Oakland, Calif., police officer Courtney Gordon, who resigned in January of 2008, around two years after she passed training and joined the police force, and then had to repay her training costs when she left, shows the huge influence court rulings have on workers’ rights.

Most of those rulings, like the one against Gordon from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, come from the federal appellate courts, since the U.S. Supreme Court is taking fewer and fewer cases each year.

When Gordon quit, the city docked her a prorated share of what it spent to train her. It could do so under both a contract Gordon signed and under the city’s collective bargaining agreement with its police officers’ union. The net, after Oakland yanked her accrued vacation and overtime pay and added a “collection fee,” was $5,268.

That was far more than Gordon’s last pay check, which was not yanked. She paid the docked sum, as legally required, then sued the city for violating the Fair Labor Standards Act, the law that governs the minimum wage and overtime pay. In essence, Gordon said she wound up with a “negative minimum wage” because she had to use her last pay check – and more – to repay the training costs.

The 9th Circuit turned her down. The judges ruled on Nov. 19, that Gordon got that last pay check, even if she had to use all of it to repay the training costs.

“Gordon contends there is no legal difference between deducting a sum from an employee’s check and directly demanding the employee surrender a sum after being paid…Because the city issued Gordon a paycheck exceeding the minimum wage amount, the city’s reimbursement demand did not violate the Fair Labor Standards Act’s minimum wage provision,” the judges said.

The only way the city, or any other employer, would have broken the law is if
“the employee ‘kicks-back’ directly or indirectly to the employer or to another person for
the employer’s benefit the whole or part of the wage delivered to the employee… whether the “kick-back” is made in cash or in other than cash,” the judges added.



Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but a holy terror when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners. El galardonado periodista Mark Gruenberg es el director de la oficina de People's World en Washington, D.C. También es editor del servicio de noticias sindicales Press Associates Inc. (PAI).