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Creamery workers file federal suit

MADISON - The Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery doesn't pay some of its production workers overtime pay, including one employee since 1968, according to a lawsuit filed recently in federal court.

According to the complaint:

• Fourteen employees allege ECC requires them to be in uniform and at their work areas 10 minutes before the start of their shift but doesn't pay them for pre-shift duties including changing into their work clothes.

• The employees need to be present before each shift change to receive current production conditions from co-workers, which allows production machinery to operate continuously during shift changes. Employees are reprimanded if they are not at their work areas 10 minutes early.

• After their shift, employees can't leave their workstations until the workers on the next shift are present. However, when their relief is late, employees aren't paid for working past their regular shift. Instead, they are told to collect wages directly from the tardy employees.

• ECC employees clock in and out for work but are paid only eight hours per shift regardless of the time recorded on their time cards. ECC rounds all time records downward in the cooperative's favor and when employees arrive late they are docked 15 minutes of time for tardiness.

Four employees have signed on as plaintiffs to the suit and 10 others have signed consent-to-sue forms including, Philip Halverson, a cheese maker, employed by ECC since 1968. During that time, ECC hasn't paid any overtime, according to Halverson.

ECC's practice of not paying overtime or for pre- and post-shift work violates the Federal Labor Standards Act and Wisconsin wage and hour regulations, according to the suit.

Ken McMahon, ECC's general manager, declined Monday to make any public comments about the case. ECC's attorney Thomas Misfeldt didn't return calls before deadline. Nathan Eisenberg, an attorney for the plaintiffs, declined to discuss the case with a reporter.

The suit seeks an unspecified amount for unpaid overtime for hours employees worked in excess of 40 hours per week and for unpaid hours worked up to 40 hours at their regular hourly rate. The suit also seeks a court order prohibiting ECC from violating state and federal wage laws.

Eisenberg is seeking class-action status for the suit, which would permit all affected employees to join the action against ECC.

In an order issued Sept. 6, District Judge John Shabaz gave the parties until Sept. 13 to file motions on the class-action status request. Shabaz also set the matter for trial on Feb. 11 in Eau Claire.

Founded in 1908 as the Milton Dairy Company, the creamery became a cooperative in 1910 and now processes 1.8 million pounds of milk daily from its 521 farmer-members in Wisconsin and Minnesota.

The co-op has about 60 employees and helped make Ellsworth known as the "Cheese Curd Capital of the World."

It produces 46 million pounds of cheese and 30 million pounds of whey powder annually. It has annual sales between $92 million and $98 million, according to Manta, an Internet-based business information source.