One of Sempra Energy’s two major utilities, Los Angeles-based Southern California Gas Co. is being targeted for five years of back overtime pay in a “proposed class action lawsuit,” according to two law firms filing the suit last week in state superior court in Los Angeles on behalf of 500 hourly employees they seek to represent.

SoCalGas spokespeople in Los Angeles indicated the utility so far has not been served with the lawsuit, but from what they can understand from a news media announcement released by the two law firms, the action “has no merit,” and appears to be “frivolous.” The company looks at the action as “an attempt to garner publicity in advance to see what type of reaction it draws” from the gas utility.

A Seattle, WA-based law firm with Los Angeles offices, Hagens Berman, and an Orange County-based firm in Southern California, Wellman & Warren, brought the suit on behalf of several specific employees, with the intention of having the court declare it a class action because of a number of unnamed plaintiffs who are all in a similar situation.

The issue dates back to 1996 when SoCalGas allegedly changed its policy to make Saturday a required workday, eliminating overtime pay for employees working that day, and refusing to pay overtime when workers clocked more than 40 hours in a work week. Employees filed formal grievances against the company, but have had their claims rejected, said Kevin Roddy, an attorney with Hagens Berman.

“Our clients repeatedly asked (the utility) to live up to its responsibilities and pay the required time-and-a-half, but were shot down at every turn,” Roddy said. “The company has tried to hide behind a series of transparent excuses, none of which stand up to the iron-clad standard that you pay time-and-a-half for work beyond 40 hours a week.”

The utility workers’ union representing the employees has been informally briefed on the lawsuit, but it is not officially backing it, according to a spokesperson for the two law firms.

The law firms are alleging they have obtained “evidence” that the company rewarded managers for keeping down labor costs by “improperly denying overtime as a well-orchestrated campaign to increase profits.” They are calling it a sort of “kick-back” system because management is rewarded for “denying hourly workers fair compensation.”

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