Fleetwood Enterprises Inc., the leading RV and manufactured home producer, is going through one of the most challenging periods in its history, and now a year-and-a-half old law suit against the company has reached a critical stage.

Thirty employees who claim they were forced to work overtime without pay sued Fleetwood for labor law violations during September 1999.

The case is pending in the U.S. District Court for the District of Idaho and it could become a class-action involving 30,000 to 35,000 current and former employees of Fleetwood, said William H. Thomas, a Boise, Idaho-based attorney for the 30 employees.

The 30 Fleetwood employees include 28 from the manufactured housing division and two from the RV division. One of the RV division employees works in Longview, Texas, and the other works at Decatur, Ind.

A federal magistrate in Idaho agreed on Feb. 20 to allow attorneys representing the 30 Fleetwood employees to begin contacting all current manufactured housing division employees and former housing division employees who worked for Fleetwood sometime after Feb. 11, 1997.

The magistrate also allowed the plaintiffs’ attorneys to mail letters to a high percentage of current employees of Fleetwood’s motorhome, travel trailer and fifth-wheel assembly operations. Although the magistrate did not allow the attorneys to contact former RV division employees, Thomas said an effort will be made to get permission to have certain former RV division employees included in the court case.

Fleetwood has until March 13 to provide plaintiffs’ attorneys with the names and addresses of the current and former employees who are subject to the magistrate’s order.

The letters from the plaintiffs’ attorneys will ask the current and former Fleetwood employees whether they want to join a class-action case, or file their own lawsuits, Thomas said.

Fleetwood announced last month that it will close three RV assembly plants in early April, but the 850 employees of the three plants can be contacted by the plaintiffs’ attorneys because they had not been laid-off as of Feb. 20, Thomas said.

However, the employees of Fleetwood’s Coleman folding camper plant in Somerset, Pa., the new travel trailer plant in Campbellville, Ky., and the travel trailer plant in Lindsay, Ontario, Canada, will not be included as plaintiffs in the court case in Idaho.

Employees of Fleetwood’s Supply Group also will be excluded from the Idaho case.

The plaintiffs’ attorneys are allowed to contact current and former Fleetwood employees with the following job titles: supervisor; production supervisor; foreman; line associate; production associate; group leader; assistant foreman and assistant supervisor.

The employees filed the law suit because they claim they “were not paid for time worked prior to the usual start time at their plant, work performed during lunch breaks, or work performed after the usual stop time at their plant, despite employees regularly working during those time periods with the encouragement, knowledge and/or acquiescence of management,” according to the order written by Magistrate Mikel H. Williams.

Fleetwood’s actions, the plaintiffs claim, violated the federal Fair Labor Standards Act and various state overtime laws.

Fleetwood has replied that the Idaho case should not be made into a class-action because its operations are decentralized and that the plaintiffs have failed to prove its factories are “an integrated enterprise.”

Otherwise, Fleetwood’s legal department has a policy of not speaking to news organizations about pending litigation.

A jury trial on the case, titled Trina Bristow et al, vs. Fleetwood Enterprises Inc., is scheduled to begin on Feb. 12, 2002, in federal court in Idaho.

Fleetwood now has a total of around 17,000 employees, Thomas estimates.