Wage and Hour Policies

A year ago, employers across the country prepared for the implementation of a new overtime rule that would dramatically increase the salary threshold for white-collar exemptions, on the understanding that the new rule would soon go into effect “unless something dramatic happens,” a phrase we and others used repeatedly.

And, of course, something dramatic did happen—a preliminary injunction, followed by a lengthy appeal, which itself took more left turns following the U.S. presidential election than a driver in a NASCAR race. The effect was to put employers in a constant holding pattern as they were left to speculate whether and when the rule would ever go into effect.

The current status of the overtime rule is but one of several prominent issues to reckon with as wage and hour issues, investigations, and litigation remain as prevalent as they have ever been.

The articles in this edition of Take 5 include the following:

  1. The Status of the Department of Labor’s 2016 Overtime Rule
  2. Recent Developments Regarding Tip Pooling
  3. Mandatory Class Action Waivers in Employment Agreements: Is a Final Answer Forthcoming?
  4. “Time Rounding”: The Next Wave of Class and Collective Actions
  5. The Department of Labor, Congress, and the Courts Wrestle with the Definition of “Employee”

Read the full Take 5 online or download the PDF.

On September 5, 2017, the Department of Labor filed with the Fifth Circuit an unopposed motion asking the court to dismiss its appeal of the nationwide preliminary injunction ruling issued last November by a Judge Amos Mazzant in the Eastern District of Texas.  The motion states that DOL’s appeal is moot in light of Judge Mazzant’s entry of final judgment on August 31, 2017.  Barring any unusual further developments, we anticipate that the Fifth Circuit will dismiss the appeal promptly.

By withdrawing the appeal, the Department is signaling that it intends to abandon the 2016 Final rule and, instead, to proceed with a new rulemaking in line with the Request for Information (“RFI”) the Department issued on July 26, 2017.  That RFI seeks public input regarding what salary level or levels, if any, the Department should use in place of the 2016 figures in order to update the $455 weekly / $23,660 annual salary requirement for the executive, administrative, and professional exemptions implemented in the Department’s 2004 rulemaking, as well as the $100,000 annual compensation threshold for the highly-compensated variant of these exemptions.

The comment period for the RFI currently ends on September 25, 2017.  To date, regulations.gov has received more than 138,000 comments in response to the RFI, though most of the comments appear to be identical submissions by numerous different commenters, as is common for this type of rulemaking.  Watch for a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking announcing a new salary level for the executive, administrative, and professional exemptions in the next few months.

 

In Moon et al v. Breathless, Inc., the Third Circuit reviewed the dismissal of a class and collective action under the Fair Labor Standards Act, the New Jersey Wage and Hour Law and the New Jersey Wage Payment Law.  The District Court for the District of New Jersey had dismissed the named plaintiff’s claims based on an arbitration clause in the written agreement between the her and Breathless, the club where she worked as a dancer.

In her lawsuit, the plaintiff alleged that she and other dancers were misclassified as independent contractors, and that Breathless unlawfully failed to pay them minimum wages and overtime pay.

In response, Breathless pointed to an agreement signed by the plaintiff stating that she was an independent contractor and not an employee. Breathless moved for summary judgment based on language in the agreement stating: “In a dispute between [the plaintiff and Breathless] under this Agreement, either may request to resolve the dispute by binding arbitration.”

The Third Circuit noted that, under New Jersey law, there is a presumption that a court will decide any issues concerning arbitrability. Finding no evidence to overcome that presumption, the Circuit Court proceeded to decide whether the plaintiff was required to submit her class and collective action claims to arbitration.

The New Jersey Supreme Court’s decisions in Garfinkel v. Morristown Obstetrics & Gynecology Assocs. and Atalese v. U.S. Legal Servs. Grp. were determinative of the scope of the arbitration agreement in this case, concluded the Third Circuit.

In Garfinkel, the arbitration provision in a contract stated it applied to “any controversy or claim arising out of, or relating to, this Agreement or the breach thereof.”  That language that suggested that the parties intended to arbitrate only those disputes “involving a contract term, a condition of employment, or some other element of the contract itself.”  Accordingly, the plaintiff in Garfinkel was not compelled to arbitrate his statutory claims.

In Atalese, the arbitration provision in a service agreement covered “any claim or dispute … related to this Agreement or related to any performance of any services related to this Agreement.”  That language “did not clearly and unambiguously signal to plaintiff that she was surrendering her right to pursue her statutory claims in court,” and therefore the plaintiff was not required to arbitrate those claims.

By contrast, the New Jersey Supreme Court required the arbitration of statutory claims in Martindale v. Sandvik, Inc., where the arbitration clause in an employment agreement stated that plaintiff agreed to waive her “right to a jury trial in any action or proceeding related to [her] employment…”

Because the arbitration agreement in the plaintiff’s agreement with Breathless applied to disputes “under this Agreement,” without reference to statutory wage claims, the Third Circuit applied Garfinkel and Atalese to conclude that Moon was not required to arbitrate her statutory claims under the FLSA and New Jersey law.

The award of summary judgment in favor of Breathless was therefore reversed, and the case was remanded to the District Court.

While the laws of other states may vary, the Third Circuit’s decision suggests that, at the very least, employers in New Jersey should expressly reference statutory wage claims in arbitration provisions if they intend to have statutory wage claims arbitrated.

When an employer pays the minimum wage (or more) instead of taking the tip credit, who owns any tips – the employer or the employee? In Marlow v. The New Food Guy, Inc., No. 16-1134 (10th Cir. June 30, 2017), the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit held they belong to the employer, who presumably can then either keep them or distribute them in whole or part to employees as it sees fit. This directly conflicts with the Ninth Circuit’s decision last year in Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Ass’n v. Perez, 816 F.3d 1080, 1086-89 (9th Cir. 2016), pet for cert. filed, No. 16-920 (Jan. 19, 2017) and likely sets up a showdown this fall in the U.S. Supreme Court.

The plaintiff in Marlow, who was paid $12 per hour, alleged her employer was obligated to turn over to her a share of all tips paid by catering customers. The Tenth Circuit first held that the statutory language of 29 U.S.C. §203(m), which allows employers the option of paying a reduced hourly wage of $2.13 so long as employees receive enough tips to bring them to the current federal minimum of $7.25, does not apply when the employer pays the full minimum wage, and thus the plaintiff had no claim to any tips. In this regard the Court followed the 2010 decision in Cumbie v. Woody Woo, Inc., 596 F.3d 577 (9th Cir. 2010), as well as a number of cited district court cases.

Crucially, the Court went on to hold that the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) had no authority to promulgate its post-Woody Woo regulation, 76 Fed. Reg. 18,855 (April 5, 2011), amending 29 C.F.R. §531.52, which, contrary to Woody Woo, states that tips are the property of the employee whether or not the employer takes the tip credit under section 2013(m). In so doing, it held that although agencies may promulgate rules to fill “ambiguities” or “gaps” in statutes, they cannot regulate when there is no ambiguity or gap that the agency was authorized to fill. It then found (1) there were no “ambiguities” in the statute that needed to be filled, as the statute clearly only applied when an employer sought to use the tip credit; (2) there were no undefined terms in the statute; and (3) there was no statutory directive to regulate the ownership of tips when the employer is not taking the tip credit. In so doing, the Tenth Circuit expressly rejected the Ninth Circuit’s decision last year in Oregon Restaurant, which held that the DOL had the discretion to issue the regulation precisely because the statute was silent on the subject.

Notably, the Supreme Court has four times extended the time for DOL to file its opposition to the petition for certiorari in Oregon Restaurant, most recently on June 30 granting an extension until September 8, 2017. It appears the current DOL may not yet be not sure what position to take as to the validity of its Obama-era regulation. Marlow’s direct conflict with Oregon Restaurant increases the likelihood that either DOL may choose not to defend the regulation or that the Supreme Court will grant review to resolve the conflict when it returns in October.

Not all new laws go into effect on the first of the year. On July 1, 2017, new minimum wage laws went into effect in several locales in California. Specifically:

  • Emeryville: $15.20/hour for businesses with 56 or more employees; $14/hour for businesses with 55 or fewer employees.
  • City of Los Angeles: $12/hour for employers with 26 or more employees; $10.50 an hour for employers with 25 or fewer employees.
  • Los Angeles County (unincorporated areas only): $12/hour for employers with 26 or more employees; $10.50 an hour for employers with 25 or fewer employees.
  • Malibu: $12/hour for employers with 26 or more employees; $10.50 an hour for employers with 25 or fewer employees.
  • Milpitas: $11 an hour.
  • Pasadena: $12/hour for employers with 26 or more employees; $10.50 an hour for employers with 25 or fewer employees.
  • San Francisco: $14 an hour.
  • San Jose: $12 an hour.
  • San Leandro: $12 an hour.
  • Santa Monica: $12/hour for employers with 26 or more employees; $10.50 an hour for employers with 25 or fewer employees.

Of course, employers with employees in these locales will want to ensure that they are complying with these new minimum wage laws.

In a move likely to impact employers in a variety of industries, U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta announced on June 7, 2017 that the Department of Labor has withdrawn the Administrator’s Interpretations (“AIs”) on independent contractor status and joint employment, which had been issued in 2015 and 2016, respectively, during the tenure of former President Barack Obama.

The DOL advised that the withdrawal of the two AIs “does not change the legal responsibilities of employers under the Fair Labor Standards Act . . . , as reflected in the department’s long-standing regulations and case law.” As discussed below, however, this announcement may reflect both a change in the DOL’s enforcement priorities going forward, and a return to the traditional standards regarding independent contractor and joint employment status that had been relied on by federal courts prior to the issuance of the AIs.

Independent Contractor Status

In determining whether a worker is properly classified as an independent contractor under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), courts have historically relied on the six-factor “economic realities test,” which considered: (1) the extent to which the work performed is an integral part of the employer’s business; (2) the worker’s opportunity for profit or loss; (3) the nature and extent of the worker’s investment in his/her business; (4) whether the work performed requires special skills and initiative; (5) the permanency of the relationship; and (6) the degree of control exercised or retained by the employer. While no single factor was meant to be determinative, courts typically placed primary emphasis on the degree of control exercised by the putative employer.

Under the Obama administration, the DOL increased its emphasis on the potential misclassification of workers as independent contractors. As part of this initiative, the agency issued Administrator’s Interpretation No. 2015-1 on July 15, 2015.  While this guidance nominally reaffirmed DOL’s support for use of the “economic realities test” to determine independent contractor status, it reflected a far more aggressive interpretation of several of the six “economic realities” factors than that historically used by courts, and emphasized the agency’s position that most workers should be classified as employees under the FLSA.

The 2015 AI rejected courts’ historical emphasis on the “control” factor, and focused instead on workers’ entrepreneurial activities, and whether they were “economically dependent” on the putative employer or actually in business for themselves. For example, while courts had merely considered whether a worker had an opportunity for profit or loss, the AI emphasized that the critical inquiry should be whether the worker had the ability to make decisions and use his/her managerial skill and initiative to affect the opportunity for profit or loss.  Similarly, while courts focused on the nature and extent of a worker’s investment in his/her business, the AI stated that a worker’s investment must be significant in magnitude when compared to the employer’s investment in its overall business, in order for the worker to properly be classified as an independent businessperson.  The AI further indicated that courts had been focusing on the wrong criteria when evaluating whether workers possessed “special skills,” stating that only business skills, judgment, and initiative, not specialized technical skills, were relevant to the independent contractor inquiry.

With the withdrawal of the 2015 AI, one may reasonably assume that the DOL has chosen to reject this more aggressive interpretation of the “economic realities test,” and return to the traditional independent contractor analysis used by courts before the AI was issued. If this is the case, employers may expect to see a decreased emphasis on workers’ entrepreneurial activities in DOL enforcement proceedings, and a return to the previous emphasis on the degree of control exerted by the putative employer over workers.

It remains to be seen whether this withdrawal indicates that the current administration views potential misclassification of independent contractors as less of a priority than the previous administration did. A key barometer will be the level of DOL activity in agency audits or enforcement actions related to independent contractor status.  Any change in the DOL’s focus, however, will likely not impact the spread of misclassification litigation (including class and collective actions), which has continued to increase in recent years.

Joint Employment

With the recent growth of the “fissured workplace” or “gig economy,” the Obama administration also directed significant attention to the concept of joint employment.  In light of this development, the former Administrator of the DOL’s Wage and Hour Division issued Administrator’s Interpretation No. 2016-1 on January 20, 2016, to clarify DOL’s position on the increasing number of circumstances under which two or more entities may be deemed joint employers.

In its August 2015 decision in Browning-Ferris Industries of California, Inc., the National Labor Relations Board expanded the concept of joint employment under the National Labor Relations Act, holding that two entities may be joint employers if one exercises either direct or indirect control over the terms and conditions of the other’s employees or reserves the right to do so.  The 2016 AI similarly expanded the circumstances under which the DOL would deem two entities to be joint employers under the FLSA.

For the first time, the AI differentiated between two different types of joint employment. The existing joint employment regulations were deemed to apply to “horizontal joint employment,” a situation where a worker has an employment relationship with two or more related or commonly owned business entities.  “Vertical joint employment,” on the other hand, would exist where an individual performed work for an intermediary employer, but was also economically dependent on another employer, such as a staffing agency.  The AI stated that, in horizontal joint employment scenarios, the DOL would apply the FLSA regulations to assess whether a joint employment relationship existed between the two business entities.  In a vertical joint employment scenario, however, DOL would focus on the relationship between the worker and each business entity, applying the “economic realities test” to determine whether the worker was economically dependent on the potential joint employer(s).

The AI made it clear that the purpose of this revised analysis was to expand the number of businesses deemed employers under the FLSA, stating that “[t]he concept of joint employment, like employment generally, should be defined expansively under the FLSA . . . .” This would, in turn, increase the number of entities potentially liable for wage and hour violations, allowing employees and the DOL to pursue claims against multiple potential employers simultaneously.

With the withdrawal of the 2016 AI, presumably the DOL has chosen to reject the more expansive horizontal/vertical joint employment analysis, and the agency’s stated intent to rely on the “economic realities test” in the joint employment context. Instead, the agency will likely rely on the existing regulations regarding joint employment, which state that a joint employment relationship may exist where: (1) there is an arrangement between employers to share an employee’s services; (2) one employer is acting directly or indirectly in the interest of the other employer(s) in relation to an employee; or (3) multiple employers are not completely disassociated with respect to the employment of a particular employee, and may be deemed to share direct or indirect control of the employee by virtue of the fact that one employer controls, is controlled by, or is under common control with the other employer(s).

Similarly, as with the independent contractor scenario, the DOL’s withdrawal of the 2016 AI may reflect a change in DOL’s enforcement priorities with regard to joint employment. As noted above, however, any such change in administrative priorities will likely not affect the scope of private litigation in this area.

Impact on Employers

While the DOL’s action does not impact employers’ legal responsibilities under the FLSA, this change presumably reflects a reversion to the traditional independent contractor and joint employment standards that were in effect prior to the issuance of the AIs. The withdrawal of the AIs may reflect a shift in the DOL’s enforcement priorities, but private litigation regarding independent contractor and joint employment status remains prevalent.

A new “comp time” bill that would dramatically change when and how overtime is paid to private sector employees in many, if not most, jurisdictions has passed the House of Representatives.  And unlike similar bills that have been considered over the years, this one might actually have a chance of passing. If it can get past an expected Democratic filibuster in the Senate, that is.

“Comp time” – short for “compensatory time” – is generally defined as paid time off that is earned and accrued by an employee instead of immediate cash payment for working overtime hours.

Generally speaking, public sector employers may provide “comp time” to employees.

However, putting aside various nuances and state law differences, it has long been the case that the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) requires private sector employers to pay non-exempt employees time-and-a-half for all work performed beyond 40 hours in a workweek.  “Comp time” generally is not permissible in the private sector.

(If you want to gain a better understanding of the various nuances and state law differences, we invite you to download our free wage-hour app, available on Apple and Android devices.)

This long-standing law could change under the new bill, known as the Working Families Flexibility Act (“the Act”). (Although its title references “working families,” it does not appear that the proposed limitation would be limited to persons with families. It would apply to single persons, too.)

Although its title does not reference the FLSA or overtime, the Act would amend the FLSA to allow private sector employers to offer non-exempt employees the choice between being paid in cash for hours they work beyond 40 in a work week or accruing an hour and one-half of paid time off.  More specifically, employees could accrue up to 160 hours of “comp time” for hours worked beyond 40 in a week – again, at a rate of an hour and one-half for each overtime hour worked.

The Act has been presented as a potential benefit to employers and employees alike – employers might be able to improve cash flow by postponing payments, and employees would have greater flexibility in scheduling their work around their personal lives.

As written, the Act would not apply to all employees. Instead, it would only apply to those employees who have worked at least 1,000 hours in a 12-month period before they agree to the employer’s proposed “comp time” arrangement.  In most circumstances, it would not apply to new hires, and it would not apply to many part-timers.

As written, eligible employees would have to agree in writing to the “comp time” arrangement.  Their agreement would have to be voluntary, and they would reserve the right to revoke their agreement at any time and receive cash for their unused “comp time.” At the same time, employers could revoke the “comp time” arrangement by giving their employees 30 days’ notice of the change in the employer’s policy.

Like much legislation, the Act leaves some questions unanswered and could lead to significant litigation if passed, including collective actions. On first glance, the most significant grounds for potential litigation would be the requirement that any acceptance of a “comp time” arrangement be entirely “voluntary.” Employees may well claim that they were pressured into accepting “comp time” by management, particularly those in seasonal businesses.

But the most significant unanswered question remains the most important – will the bill get past an expected filibuster?

A federal district court in California has weighed in on the question of whether student-athletes are employees for the purposes of minimum wage and overtime laws. And, like the courts before it, it has rejected that notion.

In Dawson v. National Collegiate Athletic Association, No. 16-cv-05487-RS (N.D. Ca. April 25, 2017), the United States District Court for the Northern District of California has joined the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals and other courts in holding that athletes are not employees entitled to minimum wage and overtime time pay.

In Dawson, a former college football player for the University of Southern California filed a putative class action against the NCAA and the associated conference, claiming he was denied full pay for all hours worked, including overtime. Rather than applying the four factor “economic reality” test that the Ninth Circuit has adopted, the district court focused on the “true nature of the relationship.” Borrowing from the Seventh Circuit’s reasoning in Berger v. Nat’l Collegiate Athletic Ass’n, 843 F.3d 285 (7th Cir. 2016), the court concluded that “student athletic ‘play’ is not ‘work,’ at least as that term is used in the FLSA.”

The court rejected the Plaintiff’s argument that the situation differed from Berger because the students in that case were track and field athletes, while the Dawson athletes played Division I football, which generates massive revenue for schools. The court noted that Plaintiff cited no authority to support this distinction.

The court also relied on the U.S. Department of Labor’s Field Operations Handbook, which indicates that students who participate in extracurricular activities generally are not employees of the school, distinguishing them from work-study students who typically are considered employees. The court drew a distinction between sports and work-study programs, labelling the latter as programs that benefit the school. Conversely, the court felt that football exists for the benefit of the student and only in limited circumstances, for the benefit of the school.

Thus, one federal court in California has joined the parade of courts that have rejected the concept of student athletes being employees of the schools where they are engaged in sports. The issue is likely to be appealed to the Ninth Circuit. And only time will tell whether the Ninth Circuit will confirm this result or whether it will conclude that student-athletes in fact are employees.

Tips Do Not Count Towards the Minimum Wage Unless a Worker Qualified as a “Tipped Employe"In Romero v. Top-Tier Colorado LLC, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that tips received by a restaurant server for hours in which she did not qualify as a tipped employee were not “wages” under the FLSA, and therefore should not be considered in determining whether she was paid the minimum wage.

Tipped Employees & the FLSA

The FLSA provides that employers may take a “tip credit” and pay employees as little as $2.13 per hour if: (i) the tip credit is applied to employees who customarily and regularly receive tips; (ii) the employee’s wages and tips are at least equal to the minimum wage, and (iii) all tips received by a tipped employee are retained by the employee or pooled with the tips of other tipped employees.

In Romero, the Tenth Circuit noted that an employee may hold both tipped and non-tipped jobs for the same employer.  In those cases, the employee is entitled to the full minimum wage while performing the job that does not generate tips.

Moreover, the Circuit Court cited to the directive in the Wage Hour Division’s Field Operations Handbook stating that, if a tipped employee spends more than 20% of his or her time performing related-but-nontipped work, then the employer may not take the tip credit for the amount of time the employee spends performing those duties.

The Plaintiff’s Claims

The plaintiff in Romero worked as a server at the defendants’ restaurant.  The defendants paid her a cash wage of $4.98 an hour, and took a tip credit to cover the gap between the cash wage rate and the federal minimum wage.

The plaintiff contended that she also worked in nontipped jobs for the defendants, and that she spent more than 20% of her workweek performing related-but-nontipped work. Therefore, she concluded she was entitled to a cash wage of at least $7.25 per hour during certain hours, and filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado claiming violations of the federal minimum wage.

The defendants’ moved to dismiss the complaint because plaintiff did not allege that her total weekly earnings, when divided by the number of hours worked, ever fell below the federal minimum wage rate. The District Court reasoned that a minimum wage violation is determined by dividing an employee’s total pay in a workweek by the total number of hours worked that week.  Because the plaintiff did not allege facts that would establish such a violation, the District Court granted the defendants’ motion and dismissed the complaint.

In light of that reasoning, the District Court never considered whether the plaintiff was properly considered a tipped employee.

When are Tips Considered “Wages” Paid by the Employer?

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the judgment of the District Court. The Tenth Circuit “assumed” that the district court correctly stated that an employer satisfies the FLSA’s minimum wage requirements so long as, after the total wage paid to each employee during any given week is divided by the total time that employee worked that week, the resulting average hourly wage is $7.25 per hour or more.

But the Tenth Circuit held that the existence of a minimum wage violation depends on the “wages” paid by an employer to an employee. The Court stated that tips are “wages” paid by an employer only when the tips are received by a worker who qualifies as a tipped employee under the FLSA.

Accordingly, the Tenth Circuit reversed the District Court’s dismissal of the plaintiff’s complaint. The Tenth Circuit directed the District Court to reconsider its ruling by examining the threshold question of whether the tips received by the plaintiff were “wages” for purposes of the minimum wage requirements of the FLSA.

What is the Impact of an Improper Tip Credit?

Assume, for example, that the plaintiff worked 40 hours in a given week, was paid cash wages of $199.20 (or $4.98 per hour) and received tips of $90.80.

If the evidence demonstrates that the plaintiff was a tipped employee at all times, she was paid wages of $290.00 (or $7.25 per hour) and the defendants did not violate the federal minimum wage.

However, the evidence could demonstrate that the plaintiff performed so much related-but-nontipped work that she did not qualify as a tipped employee at any time. As explained by the Tenth Circuit, the plaintiff’s tips would not count as wages and therefore she was paid $90.80 below the minimum wage.  The defendants could then be liable to her for that amount (as well as potential liquidated damages and attorneys’ fees).

The Tenth Circuit’s decision is consistent with the rulings of other circuit courts. Therefore, employers who are taking tip credits therefore must pay close attention to the specific requirements of the FLSA, and should not consider themselves insulated from liability merely by the fact that their tipped employees are earning more than the minimum wage.

Featured on Employment Law This Week – “For Want of a Comma.” It seems that punctuation was a key factor in a recent class action suit from a group of dairy delivery drivers in Maine.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit ruled that an exemption in the states overtime law is ambiguous enough to support the drivers’ overtime claim. The drivers argued that the exemption applies only to workers who pack perishable food products for distribution—and not those who actually distribute the products. On appeal, the First Circuit agreed that a missing “Oxford” comma makes the drivers’ reading of the exemption a reasonable one.

Watch the segment below and see our recent post.