PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — When Nathan Quimby learned about a unique state law that requires employers to pay hourly workers time-and-a-half on Sundays and holidays, he said he realized his paychecks were coming in short.
He familiarized himself with the law and ultimately filed complaints with the R.I. Department of Labor and Training against his former employers, CVS Health and Walgreens, which he claims weren’t paying him extra on those days. Quimby said he took the step to make sure he was being fairly compensated, but also because he didn’t want his former coworkers to be underpaid.
“I was concerned about that,” Quimby told Target 12.
Rhode Island is one of only a handful of states with one of these so-called “blue laws,” colonial-era statutes originally adopted for religious reasons that prohibit certain activities on Sundays and religious holidays.
DLT Director Matt Weldon said earlier this year one of his focuses has been to ensure employers know about it. And in some cases, Weldon said his agency finds businesses are tying to skirt the law. In most instances, however, he said employers simply don’t know about the obscure law, and are underpaying by mistake.
“The reality is bad people do bad things and that happens all the time,” Weldon told Target 12. “More often than not — good people aren’t aware of what the rules are.”
The director’s attempt to get the word out about the law appears to have gained traction in recent years. His office reports there were 139 cases found in violation of the law in 2020. That number increased a year later, and then soared to 583 cases in 2022. Overall, state officials report having recovered $1.5 million for workers who weren’t paid on Sundays and holidays over the past three years.
“Anyone that is filing a complaint should be able to tell us when and where they worked — keep a record of their hours,” he said. “If they don’t have a printed schedule write your own down.”
Weldon also pushed to get the law tweaked in recent years. Prior to his tenure at the helm of DLT, the law had a provision that essentially gave the DLT director the authority to exempt individual businesses at their own discretion.
Opponents argued at the time the provision was too subjective, and it opened the door for the DLT director to play favorites in the business community. Weldon successfully lobbied to get that provision removed, creating a level playing field across most employers.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to make a determination about which employer has to abide by the law and which shouldn’t,” he said.
Still, some industry-level exemptions remain. For example, some 24-hour gas stations located near interstates don’t have the pay the increased hourly wage.
Other exempted industries include houses of worship, higher-education nonprofits, private security guard businesses and 24-hour rescues, shelter and kennels. (If businesses aren’t sure where they stand, Weldon encouraged them to reach out to his office.)
Weldon said anyone who works on those days and believes they aren’t getting paid in accordance with the law should reach out to his office. For people who might fear retribution from their employers for coming forward, he said DLT accepts anonymous complaints.
But he acknowledged the employer can access the underlying information tied to each complaint, meaning they could figure out who filed the complaint by matching hours to employee records on their own.
“It’s possible,” he said, adding that his office “would do everything we can to protect” complainants.
In the event an employer is found in violation of the law, state regulators can order them to make good on the underpaid wages going back up to three years. And Weldon’s agency has the authority to expand the complaint to include all hourly workers who worked during that time period, meaning an individual complaint could result in employees receiving back-pay across the company.
“We would typically extend the complaint if we think there is merit to it,” he said. “We will extend it to everyone in that class.”
Quimby told Target 12 that’s what he’s hoping will happen in his cases. DLT confirmed his complaints against the two pharmacy giants are still pending. In a statement, a Walgreens spokesperson said the company fully complies with all federal and state wage laws.
A CVS spokesperson said in June they were “in the process of responding the DLT regarding the complaint.” He declined to comment further last week.
Quimby said he hopes all workers will better familiarize themselves with labor laws because they deserve to receive what they’re entitled to in the workplace.
“Corporations are counting on you not knowing your rights,” he said. “I learn about my rights online through research and I try to do what’s best for the workers.”