President Obama's Direction To Revise Overtime Regulations May Ultimately Have Little Real Impact

by Michael Kun

Much has been made of President Obama’s March 13, 2014 presidential memorandum directing the Secretary of Labor to update the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) regulations to expand overtime protection to more employees.  At this time, it is only speculation about what the resulting changes will be.  But some of that speculation leads to the conclusion that the changes may ultimately have little impact for most employers and most employees.

One of the articulated goals in the presidential memorandum  is to simplify overtime rules to make them easier for both employers and employees to understand.  Given how complicated the analysis of various overtime exemptions can be, both employers and employees alike should agree that such a general goal is an admirable one.  Whether they will both agree that the simplifications themselves are fair seems unlikely, particularly if those simplifications restrict the exemptions such that employees who currently fall within one or more overtime exemption will no longer do so.

Of course, only time will tell how the Secretary of Labor proposes amending the regulations.  That said, early speculation is that the relatively low weekly compensation threshold that is a criterion of most of the overtime exemptions – requiring that the individual be paid at least $455 per week – will be increased.   

But if that is the only change, one has to ask if it will have any meaningful practical impact.

While many years ago it may have been the case that many exempt employees were being paid $455 per week, that would not appear to be the case any longer.  Presumably, few persons treated as exempt are paid $455 per week – and many are paid four or five times that, if not more.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that the only change to the regulations is to increase the weekly threshold to $700.

Employees who are paid at $700 or more per week would not be affected. 

But how about those who are paid less than $700 per week? 

An employer could simply raise that employee’s weekly salary to $700. 

But what about the employer who does not want to pay that employee $700 per week – or who cannot afford to do so?  What if that employer can only afford to pay that employee $600 per week?

The answer is simple: the employer could merely convert the employee from a salaried, exempt position to an hourly, non-exempt position, and then reverse engineer his hourly rate such that he makes $600 per week.  If the employee is expected to work 60 hours in a week and the employer can only afford to pay him $600, the employer would simply assign the employee an hourly rate of $8.57 per hour.  (The employee would be paid 40 hours at that hourly rate, and 20 hours at time-and-a-half of that rate, equaling $600.) 

The only real impact would be in those situations where the amount an employer wishes to a pay an employee currently treated as exempt would translate to an hourly rate below the minimum wage, which would then require the employer to increase the hourly rate to pay the employee the minimum wage. 

How often would that be the case?

Probably, not often.

So, if the only change to the regulations is to increase the weekly compensation threshold, the change truly will have little impact. 

And if there are more sweeping changes, such as changes to the duties that would qualify for the exemption, that, too would appear to have little realistic impact.  Any employees who no longer qualified for an exemption would merely be transitioned to hourly, non-exempt positions, with their compensation reverse engineered so that they would be earning the same amount each week as they were earning as exempt employees.  

President Seeks Increase to Salary Threshold for Exempt Status

By Brian Steinbach

True to its word, the Obama administration is continuing its effort to do administratively what it cannot achieve legislatively.

While efforts to increase the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour are mired in the Congress, the administration on March 13 announced that it has instructed the Secretary of Labor to “update” and “simplify” the regulations defining who is considered an exempt employee not entitled to overtime pay. These regulations were most recently overhauled in 2004.

“Regulations regarding exemptions … for executive, administrative, and professional employees (often referred to as "white collar" exemptions) have not kept up with our modern economy.”  - Barack Obama

Regulations "for executive, administrative, and professional employees (often referred to as 'white collar' exemptions) have not kept up with our modern economy.”                Barack Obama

The announcement makes it clear that the goal is to significantly narrow the number of individuals who qualify as exempt. A major target of the proposed revisions is the current $455-per-week salary threshold for executive, administrative and professional employees. That threshold is roughly equivalent to $11.38 per hour for a forty-hour week – not much more than the $10.10 minimum wage that the administration seeks, and which it claims is the equivalent of $561 in today’s dollars.

While many exempt employees already make far more than this amount, in some industries – particularly retail and restaurants – front-line managers who currently qualify as executive or administrative employees may not earn much more than this amount, so even a relatively modest increase could cause them to no longer be exempt.

Another likely target may be changing the portion of the definition of an executive employee that currently requires only that the “primary duty” be managing, to a requirement that a fixed percentage of work be devoted to managerial tasks. Again, this is particularly likely to affect the retail and restaurant industry, where managers frequently step in and handle nonexempt tasks when needed.

Fortunately, the regulatory process likely will last at least 18 months, if not longer, and there will be ample opportunity to comment on whatever specific proposed changes the Department of Labor makes, as well as for the Congress to weigh in. In the meantime, this is a good opportunity for employers to review their classifications to make sure exempt individuals are properly classified, and in particular look at how much time they are spending on exempt activities.

Take 5 Views You Can Use: Wage and Hour Update

By: Kara M. Maciel

The following is a selection from the Firm's October Take 5 Views You Can Use which discusses recent developments in wage hour law.

  1. IRS Will Begin Taxing a Restaurant's Automatic Gratuities as Service Charges

Many restaurants include automatic gratuities on the checks of guests with large parties to ensure that servers get fair tips. This method allows the restaurant to calculate an amount into the total bill, but it takes away a customer's discretion in choosing whether and/or how much to tip the server. As a result of this removal of a customer's voluntary act, the Internal Revenue Service ("IRS") will begin classifying automatic gratuities as service charges, taxed like regular wages, beginning in January 2014.

This change is expected to be problematic for restaurants because the new treatment of automatic gratuities will complicate payroll accounting. Each restaurant will be required to factor automatic gratuities into the hourly wage of the employee, meaning the employee's regular rate of pay could vary from day to day, thus adding a potential complication to overtime payments. Furthermore, because restaurants pay Social Security and Medicaid taxes on the amount that its employees claim in tips, restaurants are eligible for an income-tax credit for some or all of these payments. Classifying automatic gratuities as service charges, however, would lower that possible income-tax credit.

Considering that the IRS's ruling could disadvantage servers as well, restaurants may now want to consider eliminating the use of automatic gratuities. Otherwise, employees could come under greater scrutiny in reporting their tips as a result of this ruling. Furthermore, these tips would be treated as wages, meaning upfront withholding of federal taxes and delayed access to tip earnings until payday.

Some restaurants, including several in New York City, have begun doing away with tips all together. These restaurants have replaced the practice of tipping with either a surcharge or increased food prices that include the cost of service. They can then afford to pay their servers a higher wage per hour in lieu of receiving tips. This is another way for restaurants to ensure that employees receive a sufficient wage, while simultaneously removing the regulatory burdens that a tip-system may impose.

  1. The New DOL Secretary, Tom Perez, Spells Out the WHD's Enforcement Agenda

On September 4, 2013, the new U.S. Secretary of Labor, Tom Perez, was sworn in. During his remarks, Secretary Perez outlined several priorities for the U.S. Department of Labor ("DOL"), including addressing pay equity for women, individuals with disabilities, and veterans; raising the minimum wage; and fixing the "broken" immigration system.

Most notably, and unsurprisingly, Secretary Perez emphasized the enforcement work of the Wage and Hour Division ("WHD"). Just last year, the WHD again obtained a record amount—$280 million—in back-pay for workers. Employers can expect to see continued aggressive enforcement efforts from the WHD in 2013 and 2014 on areas such as worker misclassification, overtime pay, and off-the-clock work. In fact, Secretary Perez stated in his swearing-in speech that "when we protect workers with sensible safety regulations, or when we address the fraud of worker misclassification, employers who play by the rules come out ahead." By increasing its investigative workforce by over 40 percent since 2008, the WHD has had more time and resources to undertake targeted investigation initiatives in addition to investigations resulting from complaints, and that trend should continue.

  1. DOL Investigates Health Care Provider and Obtains $4 Million Settlement for Overtime Payments

On September 16, 2013, the DOL announced that Harris Health System ("Harris"), a Houston health care provider of emergency, outpatient, and inpatient medical services, had agreed to pay more than $4 million in back wages and damages to approximately 4,500 current and former employees for violations of the overtime and recordkeeping provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act ("FLSA"). The DOL made this announcement after the WHD completed a more than two-year investigation into the company's payment system, prompted by claims that employees were not being fully compensated.

Under the FLSA, employers typically must pay their non-exempt employees an overtime premium of time-and-one-half their regular rate of pay for all hours worked in excess of 40 hours in a workweek. Employers within the health care industry have special overtime rules. Notably, for all employers, an employee's "regular rate of pay" is not necessarily the same as his or her hourly rate of pay. Rather, an employee's "regular rate of pay" includes an employee's "total remuneration" for that week, which consists of both the employee's hourly rate as well as any non-discretionary forms of payment, such as commissions, bonuses, and incentive pay. The FLSA dictates that an employee's "regular rate" of pay is then determined by dividing the employee's total remuneration for the week by the number of hours worked that week.

The DOL's investigation concluded that Harris had failed to: (i) include incentive pay when determining its employees' regular rate of pay for overtime purposes, and (ii) maintain proper overtime records. As a result, Harris owed its employees a total of $2.06 million in back wages and another $2.06 million in liquidated damages.

Because an employee's "total remuneration" for a workweek may consist of various forms of compensation, employers must consistently evaluate and assess their payment structures and payroll systems to determine the payments that must be included in an employee's overtime calculations beyond just the hourly wage. Additionally, employers should conduct periodic audits to ensure that they are maintaining full and accurate records of all hours worked by every employee.

  1. Federal Court Strikes Down DOL Tip Pooling Rule

In 2011, the WHD enacted a strict final rule related to proper tip pooling and service charge practices. This final rule was met with swift legal challenges, and, this summer, the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon ("District Court") concluded that the DOL had exceeded its authority when implementing its final rule. See Oregon Rest. and Lodging Assn. v. Solis, No. 3:12-cv-01261 (D. Or. June 7, 2013).

Inconsistent interpretations of the FLSA among various appellate courts have created confusion for both employers and courts regarding the applicability of valid tip pools. One of the most controversial interpretations of the FLSA occurred in early 2010, when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that an employer could require servers to pool their tips with non-tipped kitchen and other "back of the house staff," so long as a tip credit was not taken and the servers were paid minimum wage. See Cumbie v. Woody Woo, Inc., 596 F.3d 577 (9th Cir. 2010). According to the Ninth Circuit, nothing in the text of the FLSA restricted tip pooling arrangements when no tip credit was taken; therefore, because the employer did not take a tip credit, the tip pooling arrangement did not violate the FLSA.

In 2011, the DOL issued regulations that directly conflicted with the holding in Woody Woo. As a result, employers could no longer require mandatory tip pooling with back-of-the-house employees. In conjunction with this announcement, the DOL issued an advisory memo directing its field offices nationwide, including those within the Ninth Circuit, to enforce its final rule prohibiting mandatory tip pools that include such employees who do not customarily and regularly receive tips.

Shortly after the issuance of the DOL's final rule, hospitality groups filed a lawsuit against the DOL challenging the agency's regulations that exclude back-of-the-house restaurant workers from employer-mandated tip pools. The lawsuit sought to declare the DOL regulations unlawful and inapplicable to restaurants that pay employees who share the tips at least the federal or applicable state minimum wage with no tip credit. On June 10, 2013, the District Court granted the plaintiffs' summary judgment motion, holding that the DOL exceeded its authority by issuing regulations on tip pooling in restaurants. The District Court stated that the language of Section 203(m) of the FLSA is clear and unambiguous; it only imposes conditions on employers that take a tip credit.

The District Court's decision may have a large impact on the tip pool discussion currently before courts across the country, especially if employers in the restaurant and hospitality industries begin to challenge the DOL's regulations. Given the District Court's implicit message encouraging legal challenges against the DOL, the status of the law regarding tip pooling is more uncertain than ever. Although the decision is a victory for employers in the restaurant and hospitality industry, given the aggressive nature of the DOL, employers in all circuits should still be extremely careful when instituting mandatory tip pool arrangements, regardless of whether a tip credit is being taken.

  1. Take Preventative Steps When Facing WHD Audits

In response to a WHD audit or inspection, here are several preventative and proactive measures that an employer can take to prepare itself prior to, during, and after the audit:

  • Prior to any notice of a WHD inspection, employers should develop and implement a comprehensive wage and hour program designed to prevent and resolve wage hour issues at an early stage. For example, employers should closely examine job descriptions to ensure that they reflect the work performed, review time-keeping systems, develop a formal employee grievance program for reporting and resolving wage and hour concerns, and confirm that all written time-keeping policies and procedures are current, accurate, and obeyed. Employers should also conduct regular self-audits with in-house or outside legal counsel (to protect the audit findings under the attorney-client privilege) and ensure that they address all recommendations immediately.
  • During a DOL investigation, employers should feel comfortable to assert their rights, including requesting 72 hours to comply with any investigative demand, requesting that interviews and on-site inspection take place at reasonable times, participating in the opening and closing conferences, protecting trade secrets and confidential business information, and escorting the investigator while he or she is at the workplace.
  • If an investigator wants to conduct a tour of an employer's facility, an employer representative should escort the investigator at all times while on-site. While an investigator may speak with hourly employees, the employer may object to any impromptu, on-site interview that lasts more than five minutes on the grounds that it disrupts normal business operations.
  • If the DOL issues a finding of back wages following an investigation, employers should consider several options. First, an employer can pay the amount without question and accept the DOL's findings. Second, an employer can resolve disputed findings and negotiate reduced amounts at an informal settlement conference with the investigator or his or her supervisor. Third, an employer can contest the findings and negotiate a formal settlement with the DOL's counsel. Finally, an employer may contest the findings, prepare a defense, and proceed to trial in court.

In addition, employers should review our WHD Investigation Checklist, which can help them ensure that they have thought through all essential wage and hour issues prior to becoming the target of a DOL investigation or private lawsuit.

Following these simple measures could significantly reduce an employer's exposure under the FLSA and similar state wage and hour laws.

Wage & Hour FAQ #1: How to Prepare for a Wage Hour Inspection

By: Kara M. Maciel

Earlier this month, we released our Wage and Hour Division Investigation Checklist for employers and have received a lot of great feedback with additional questions. Following up on that feedback, we will be regularly posting FAQs as a regular feature of our Wage & Hour Defense Blog.

In this post, we address a common issue that many employers are facing in light of increased government enforcement at the state and federal level from the Department of Labor.

QUESTION: “I am aware that my industry is being targeted by the DOL for audits and several of my competitors in the area are facing wage and hour investigations.  What should I be doing now to proactively prepare my company in the event we are next for an audit?”

ANSWER:  Even though your company may not be in the midst of an investigation, there are still several action items that you can implement to place your company is the best possible position to defend against any DOL investigation.  For example:

  • Check current 1099’s as well as all 1099’s going back several years and review the actual job duties of those persons paid as independent contractors to verify that they were not, in fact, employees.
  •  Examine all written job descriptions to ensure that they: (i) accurately reflect the work done, (ii) have been updated where necessary, and (iii) indeed justify the applicable exemptions.
  • Review time keeping systems to ensure that non-exempt employees are being paid for all work performed, including work pre- or post-shift and during meal breaks
  • Ensure that required payroll records and written policies and procedures are current, accurate, and compliant.

Training staff is another key component of protecting your company from costly wage and hour claims. Not only could all managers be familiar with the FLSA and state wage and hour laws, but all employees should understand their role in proper record keeping and overtime. Key managers and personnel should be aware of the DOL’s inspection rights and what the DOL can and cannot do while on your property.

Finally, developing a response team with legal counsel is critical to being prepared if an inspection official knocks on your door unannounced. The response team should be armed with information and protocols so they know how to address the DOL’s subpoenas, questions, document requests, and other investigative demands.

In subsequent FAQs, we will discuss in more detail who should participate in a response team and what information they need to have in the event of an unscheduled DOL audit. But, in the meantime, regular internal reviews and audits of your wage and hour practices and documentation is key to protecting against costly exposure from a government investigation.

* * * * * * * * * *

Be sure to check out our Wage and Hour Division Investigation Checklist for more helpful tips and advice about preparing for and managing a Wage Hour Inspection.

 

Labor Secretary Hilda Solis Resigns: How Will the Enforcement Policy of the Wage and Hour Division Change?

By Douglas Weiner and Kara Maciel

“There’s a new sheriff in town.”  With those words in 2009, Secretary Hilda Solis initiated a policy at the Department of Labor that emphasized increased investigations and prosecutions of violators rather than the prior administration’s emphasis on providing compliance assistance.

Her departure – announced yesterday – is unlikely, however, to have much effect on the Department’s current aggressive enforcement policy, as the top enforcement officer of the Department remains Solicitor of Labor M. Patricia Smith.  Solicitor Smith was previously the New York State Commissioner of Labor, where she introduced task force investigations and procedures for government agencies to share information to enhance enforcement initiatives.  Under Solicitor Smith’s leadership, the Department has implemented many of these same techniques and hired additional investigators and attorneys to strengthen the Department’s enforcement of the Fair Labor Standards Act, and related wage and hour statutes. 

We expect enforcement to remain a top priority of the Department under the second term of the Obama Administration no matter who is appointed to replace Secretary Solis.  Accordingly, with the start of the new year, employers would be wise to take the time to closely examine payroll policies and practices, including exempt and independent contractor classifications, meal break deductions, and overtime calculations. Our advice is to be proactive with a self-audit that is protected by the attorney-client privilege and correct inadvertent errors before a government investigator or plaintiffs’ attorney comes knocking at your door. 

EBG Complimentary Webinar: Don't Be a Target of the Wage and Hour Class Action Epidemic: Tips for Avoiding Exposure

Wage and hour investigations and class action lawsuits continue to be a potentially serious problem for many employers, resulting in an abundance of new cases filed and many large settlements procured.  In addition, in September 2011, under the guidance of the Obama Administration, the Department of Labor and IRS announced an effort to coordinate with each other to address misclassification of employees as independent contractors, which is resulting in additional investigations, fines, and/or legal liability levied on an employer.

Click here to register for this complimentary webinar.

Thursday, April 12, 2012
9:00 a.m. - 10:00 a.m. CDT - Program and Q&A Session 
 

Payday for Unpaid Interns?

By Amy Traub and Desiree Busching

Like the fashions in the magazines on which they work and the blockbuster movies for which they assist in production, unpaid interns are becoming one of the newest, hottest trends— the new “it” in class action litigation. As we previously advised, there has been an increased focus on unpaid interns in the legal arena, as evidenced by complaints filed by former unpaid interns in September 2011 against Fox Searchlight Pictures, Inc. and in February 2012 against Hearst Corporation. In those lawsuits, unpaid interns working on the hit movie “Black Swan” and at Harper’s Bazaar magazine, respectively, alleged that their high-profile employers violated federal and state wage-and-hour laws by failing to pay them for work they claim was more aptly suited for paid employees.

The newest case to hit the scene on this issue has been filed by Lucy Bickerton, a former unpaid intern of “The Charlie Rose Show” on PBS. In her March 14, 2012 complaint, Bickerton alleges that she worked for the show in 2007 for approximately 25 hours per week and that the show and its host had her performing “productive work”—work for which she claims she, and other interns like her, should have been paid.

According to a press release issued by the plaintiffs’ firm that has filed all three of these prominent unpaid intern cases, “[s]ince filing a lawsuit on behalf of unpaid Fox [Searchlight Pictures, Inc.] interns late last year, our office has received numerous calls from other current and former interns who were not paid for the productive work they performed. This [Bickerton] lawsuit should send a clear message to employers that the practice of classifying employees as ‘interns’ to avoid paying wages runs afoul of federal and state wage and hour laws.”

The clear message received is that this firm is on the offensive, and others will undoubtedly soon follow suit. For employers who have checked their unpaid internship programs to ensure that they are in compliance with the tests utilized by both federal and state agencies and courts in analyzing whether individuals qualify as “interns,” it is time to double-check. With the attention this issue is seeing in the media and before the courts, it is clear that if misclassified unpaid interns are not paid now, employers may just be paying later.

An Overview of Wage Hour Laws and Litigation: Avoiding the Pitfalls of Back Wage Claims

Wage Hour laws and regulations are complex, non-intuitive, and constantly changing.  Mistakes in wage and salary administration have led to class actions resulting in six and seven figure recoveries against the most sophisticated employers - banks and major industrial giants as well as smaller employers without in-house legal and high level Human Resources officials.  Peter M. Panken, Lauri Rasnick and Douglas Weiner in our New York Office have recently authored an article in conjunction with a major national Continuing Legal Education program in Washington entitled: “ An Overview of Wage Hour Laws and Litigation: Avoiding the Pitfalls of Back Wage Claims” which outlines the major traps employers can fall into and outlines ways to avoid the problems before litigation begins.

The Administrative Exemption from Overtime Pay Continues to Plague Employers: Is There a Cure?

By John F. Fullerton, III, Douglas Weiner, and Meg Thering

The plague of lawsuits for unpaid overtime compensation by employees who claim that they were misclassified by their current or former employer as “exempt” from overtime under the “administrative” exemption of the Fair Labor Standards Act shows no signs of receding.  These lawsuits continue to present challenges to employers, not just in terms of the burdens and costs of defending the cases, but in the uncertainty of the potential financial exposure.

Read the full article online

First Circuit Finds Employees Exempt from Overtime Pay

By Peter M. Panken, Michael S. Kun, Douglas Weiner, and Larissa Lalor-Rosado

Misclassification of employees as exempt from overtime compensation has become a cottage industry for plaintiff’s lawyers and for the United States Department of Labor (“DOL”) in the Obama years.  One of the most difficult issues is whether employees meet the so-called administrative exemption to the Wage Hour laws.  In Hines v. State Room, the United States Circuit Court in New England offered some clarity and help to beleaguered employers holding that former banquet sales managers were exempt from overtime requirements under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”).

The FLSA, requires overtime pay at the rate of one and one half times the regular rate of pay for all hours worked in excess of 40 hours in a seven day period unless the employee is exempt. The three pronged test for exemption for administrative employees is whether the employee is (1) salaried (paid a regular amount of at least $455 for all hours worked in a workweek); (2) the employee’s primary duty is the performance of office or non-manual work directly related to the management or general business operations of the employer or the employer’s customers; and (3) the employee’s primary duty includes the exercise of discretion and independent judgment with respect to matters of significance.

Plaintiffs were banquet sales managers whose job included seeking potential customers for events at the employer, developing the elements of the party or other event and submitting the proposed contract terms for approval by senior officials of the Banquet Halls.

The Court found that Plaintiffs met the first two prongs for exemption: Plaintiffs were paid on a salary basis, and their work was primarily administrative because it was ancillary to the employer’s actual business of providing banquet services.

Plaintiffs claimed that they did not meet the third prong for exemption because they lacked the authority to make any decisions of financial consequence, supervisory authority or policy-making authority.

The Court found that while the plaintiffs’ discretion in matters having significant financial impact was subject to managerial approval, such restrictions did not detract from the judgment exercised in developing a proposal for the client. Plaintiffs’ duties included maintaining primary contact with a client, tailoring an event to their needs, and overseeing the event through to execution. The Court ruled that plaintiffs exercised adequate discretion as sales people to be designated as exempt.

Other Factors Considered for Exemption

The preamble to the current DOL regulations identifies a host of factors that courts have found sufficient to demonstrate that employees exercise independent judgment. 69 Fed. Reg. at 22144. Such factors include:

·                     the ability to exercise discretion and independent judgment,

·                     freedom from direct supervision,

·                     personnel responsibilities,

·                     trouble-shooting or problem-solving activities on behalf of management,

·                     use of personalized communication techniques,

·                     authority to handle atypical or unusual situations,

·                     responsibility for assessing customer needs, primary contact to public or customers on behalf of the employer, the duty to anticipate competitive products or services and distinguish them from competitor’s products or services,

·                     advertising or promotion work, and coordination of departments, requirements or other activities for or on behalf of employer or employer’s clients or customers.

Unfortunately these factors are very fact intensive and do not provide a bright line test for exemption, But the Hines case does offer some useful precedent and guidance for employers. In any event, care must be taken to be sure that the law in a particular state or in a particular circuit does not impose a stricter limitation on the discretion and independent judgment issue.

Take-Away

An employer may retain the right to review an employee’s ability to create financial and contractual obligations and still properly classify the employee as exempt. Requiring managerial approval for these purposes does not necessarily detract from the judgment exercised by the employee at arriving at the proposal in the first place. In addition, as set forth above, there are numerous other factors that courts can consider in determining whether an employee should be designated as exempt.

U.S. Supreme Court Grants Review of the "Outside Sales" Exemption Found Applicable to Pharmaceutical Sales Representatives

By David Garland and Douglas Weiner

In February 2011, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit gave a resounding victory to employers in the pharmaceutical industry by finding that pharmaceutical sales representatives are covered by the outside sales exemption of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”). Christopher v. SmithKline Beecham, No. 10-15257 (9th Cir. Feb. 14, 2011). Plaintiffs, and the U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”) in an amicus brief, had argued the exemption did not apply because sales reps are prohibited from making the final sale. Prescription medicine in the heavily regulated pharmaceutical industry can only be sold to the ultimate consumer with the authorization of a licensed physician. Sales reps use their “selling skills” to persuade doctors to prescribe their employer’s products when the doctor’s patients have a medical need for them. Sales reps do not transfer title to the medicine themselves.

Previously the Second Circuit, in In Re Novartis, took a contrary view and adopted the Secretary of Labor’s position that the outside sales exemption did not apply to pharmaceutical sales representatives specifically because they were prohibited by regulation from making direct sales. The Ninth Circuit rejected the plaintiffs’ and DOL’s “rigid, formalistic interpretation” of the FLSA’s definition of “sale,” which provides that “Sale” … includes any “sale … or other disposition.” 29 U.S.C. 203(k). Because of the uncertainty in this unsettled area of law, both the employee plaintiffs and the employer asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review the Ninth Circuit’s decision.

Pertinent to the aggressive approach the DOL has recently taken in submitting unsolicited amicus briefs in significant cases, another issue the Supreme Court may review is the degree of deference, if any, the court owes to an amicus brief submitted by the DOL. Again in stark contrast, the Second Circuit gave the DOL’s amicus brief “controlling deference” to interpret the DOL’s own regulations while the Ninth Circuit gave the DOL’s amicus brief “no deference” finding it was a departure from established industry norm that the DOL used to short-cut the public notice – and – comment rule making procedures.       

It would be a most welcome development for the Supreme Court to affirm the Ninth Circuit and resolve this dramatic split in the circuit courts. However, even if the Second Circuit’s view of the “outside salesman” exemption is upheld, there are circumstances when sales reps may be exempt by virtue of the administrative exemption. Employers need clarity to structure employment practices without the ever-present threat of class action litigation.

Proposed Legislation May Expand the Scope of the Computer Employee Exemption

By Douglas Weiner and Meg Thering

On October 20, 2011, the Computer Professionals Update Act (“the CPU Act”) – one of the first potential pieces of good news for employers this year – was introduced in the U.S. Senate.  If passed, the CPU act would expand the computer employee exemption of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”).  S. 1747

Unlike much of the other legislation affecting employers that has been proposed or passed this year, the CPU Act would make business easier for employers and decrease the risk of employee misclassification lawsuits.  If the proposed legislation passes, employers would be able to classify more employees as exempt from the overtime provisions of the FLSA.  This would be a welcome change from the persistent drum beat of enhanced enforcement initiatives announced by government agencies and upticks in class and collective actions this year.

The computer employee exemption currently is limited to employees who earn at least $27.63 an hour and work as computer systems analysts, computer programmers, software engineers, or other similar positions.  Employees are exempt if their primary duties consist of: (1) the application of systems analysis techniques and procedures, including consulting with users, to determine hardware, software or system functional specifications; (2) the design, development, documentation, analysis, creation, testing or modification of computer systems or programs, including prototypes, based on and related to user or system design specifications; (3) the design, documentation, testing, creation or modification of computer programs related to machine operating systems; or (4) a combination of such duties.  29 U.S.C. § 213(a)(17); 541 C.F.R. § 400; U.S. Department of Labor Fact Sheet #17E.  In contrast, employees whose work consists of repairing or manufacturing computer equipment are not exempt. 541 C.F.R. § 401; U.S. Department of Labor Fact Sheet #17E.

The CPU Act would broaden the exemption to include any employee who works in a “computer or information technology occupation (including but not limited to, work related to computers, information systems, components, networks, software, hardware, databases, security, internet, intranet, or websites) as an analyst, programmer, engineer, designer, developer, administrator, or other similarly skilled worker.”  The primary duties for the exemption to apply would also be broader under the CPU Act, which would consider employees exempt if their primary duties are: (1) “the application of systems, network or database analysis techniques and procedures, including consulting with users, to determine or modify hardware, software, network, database, or system functional specifications;” or (2) “the design, development, documentation, analysis, creation, testing, securing, configuration, integration, debugging, modification of computer or information technology, or enabling continuity of systems and applications.”  Employees who perform a combination of these duties would still be considered exempt.  Also, employees who are “directing the work of individuals performing duties described [above], including training such individuals or leading teams performing such duties” would be considered exempt.  S. 1747

Is the Job So Easy a Caveman Could Do It?

By Doug Weiner

            In a decision dated January 5, 2010 the D.C. Circuit raised that question in a case involving the administrative exemption in a Fair Labor Standards Act class action.  

Stating the District Court had no occasion to decide whether the job of a GEICO auto damage adjuster is so easy a caveman could do it, (referring to GEICO’s well known ad campaign in a light hearted footnote) the appellate court held that GEICO satisfied its burden of proof that its employees performed exempt administrative duties. The appellate court reversed the district court’s summary judgment for plaintiffs, and in a lengthy and well reasoned decision, upheld the exempt classification. Reversing the lower court, the appellate court directed judgment be entered for the employer. 

Exemptions to the FLSA are generally narrowly construed. The administrative exemption applies only to employees paid on a salary basis of at least $455 a week whose “primary duty consists of …the performance of office or non-manual work directly related to management policies or general business operations of his employer…which includes work requiring the exercise of discretion and independent judgment with respect to matters of significance.” 29 C.F.R. 541.200 et. seq. The court noted the question of whether an employee comes within an FLSA exemption is a question of law, and the appellate court reviewed de novo the district court’s grant of summary judgment to the plaintiffs. 

Plaintiffs did not dispute that they were paid the requisite salary, and performed non-manual work directly related to GEICO’s business operation. However the plaintiffs argued, and the district court found, that the amount of discretion they exercised was “insufficient” for exemption because the vast majority of their work consisted of using their training and skills to assess the value of the damage to customers’ vehicles in accordance with the employer’s directions, “limited in scope by both the information and standards contained in the computer software and the guidelines and limits on negotiating authority laid out by GEICO”. 

The appellate court found that although the parties disputed how much discretion the plaintiffs exercised, there was no dispute that plaintiffs work “includes some discretion” to perform their duties. The court then held that because it was undisputed that the plaintiffs’ job “includes” work requiring the exercise of discretion and independent judgment, the employer had met its burden of proof, and directed the district court to enter judgment for the employer.

The court, citing decisions from “sister” circuits finding auto damage adjusters exempt from overtime requirements by virtue of the administrative exemption, held that the defining regulation merely required the employees’ primary duty to “include” discretion and independent judgment, but does not specify how frequently the discretion must be exercised. The court held that because it was undisputed that the plaintiff exercised “some discretion and independent judgment during the course of his job” the employer had satisfied the final test to support the exempt classification.

How broadly will the D. C. Circuit’s analysis of the auto damage adjusters’ duties be applied to other employment circumstances? Because each worker’s classification of exemption depends upon a detailed factual analysis, and employers are required to bear the burden to prove an exemption is applicable, employers should proceed cautiously before reaching a determination that their employees satisfy all the criteria necessary for exemption. The court noted that in this case GEICO had re-classified their auto damage adjusters as non-exempt during the course of the litigation to limit further exposure in the event the exempt classification was not upheld. 

As many employers have learned to their sorrow, the question of properly applying FLSA exemptions is not so easy even a cave man could do it. 

            The court decided the appeals of Jerome Robinson-Smith v. Geico, case number 08-7146, and Christine Lindsay et. al. v. Geico, case number 08-7147, in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

Furlough FAQs

Furloughs are a hot topic in today's economy.  I previously reported on the potential usefulness of furloughs, as well as the risk that reducing an employee's salary as part of a furlough program could run afoul of the "salary basis" test and jeopardize the employee's exempt status. 

Recognizing the need for legal guidance on this issue, the U.S. Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division recently issued a user-friendly "Frequently Asked Questions" fact sheet on furloughs. (Special thanks to my EBG colleague Elissa Silverman for bringing this to my attention.)

I don't see any major surprises here.  Nevertheless, employers considering the use of a furlough program would be wise to consult this fact sheet first.

On the issue of the salary basis test, FAQ # 7 confirms the basic rules that I discussed in March of this year:

7. Can an employer make prospective reduction in pay for a salaried exempt employee due to the economic downturn?

An employer is not prohibited from prospectively reducing the predetermined salary amount to be paid regularly to a Part 541 exempt employee during a business or economic slowdown, provided the change is bona fide and not used as a device to evade the salary basis requirements. Such a predetermined regular salary reduction, not related to the quantity or quality of work performed, will not result in loss of the exemption, as long as the employee still receives on a salary basis at least $455 per week. On the other hand, deductions from predetermined pay occasioned by day-to-day or week-to-week determinations of the operating requirements of the business constitute impermissible deductions from the predetermined salary and would result in loss of the exemption. The difference is that the first instance involves a prospective reduction in the predetermined pay to reflect the long term business needs, rather than a short-term, day-to-day or week-to-week deduction from the fixed salary for absences from scheduled work occasioned by the employer or its business operations.

 

Reducing Hours and Pay of Exempt Employees May Run Afoul of "Salary Basis" Test

The U.S. Department of Labor's Wage & Hour Division has issued two new opinion letters addressing circumstances under which employers may not reduce the hours of exempt employees without running afoul of the "salary basis" test and risking loss of the employees' exempt status.  

First, some background.  Employees exempt from the FLSA's minimum wage and overtime requirements as professional, executive, or administrative employees must be paid a salary of at least $455 per week. Under 29 C.F.R. § 541.602(a),

[a]n employee will be considered to be paid on a "salary basis" . . . if the employee regularly receives each pay period . . . a predetermined amount constituting all or part of the employee’s compensation, which amount is not subject to reduction because of variations in the quality or quantity of the work performed. . . . An employee is not paid on a salary basis if deductions from the employee’s predetermined compensation are made for absences occasioned by the employer or by the operating requirements of the business. If the employee is ready, willing and able to work, deductions may not be made for time when work is not available.

In the first opinion letter, the employer sought to reduce the hours worked by employees using the following system:

Your client proposes occasionally reducing the hours worked by exempt employees due to short-term business needs (e.g., low patient census). In such cases, the employer offers “voluntary time off” (VTO), where employees may, at their option, use paid annual, personal, or vacation leave, but continue to accrue employment benefits. The employer approves VTO on a first-come, first-served basis. If there are insufficient volunteers for VTO, the employer requires “mandatory time off” (MTO) under a seniority-based rotational method. Exempt employees required to take MTO may use accrued paid leave or take unpaid MTO. If the employee elects not to use accrued paid leave or does not have sufficient accrued paid leave to cover the VTO or MTO, the employer deducts the amount equal to the VTO or MTO from the employee’s salary, if it is shorter than one workweek. For unpaid VTO or MTO lasting an entire workweek, the employer does not pay the salary for that pay period. Salaried exempt employees may take VTO or be assigned MTO in one-day increments.

The DOL opined that salary deductions due to MTO lasting less than a workweek violate the salary basis requirement and may cause the loss of exempt status.  "Deductions from salary due to day-to-day or week-to-week determinations of the operating requirements of the business are precisely the circumstances the salary basis requirement is intended to preclude." 

In the second opinion letter, the employer proposed requiring salaried exempt employees to stay home or leave work early during periods of insufficient work.  The employer would deduct the non-work time from the employees’ accrued paid time-off accounts. The employees would receive their regular salaries so long as they had sufficient hours in their PTO accounts to cover the non-work periods. If an employee’s accrued PTO was exhausted, the employee’s salary would be reduced in full-day increments, except that in no event would an employee’s salary be reduced below the $455 per week.

The DOL opined that this proposal would also run afoul of the salary basis test. 

If an employer requires that an exempt employee work less than a full workweek, the employer must pay the employee’s full salary even if: (1) the employer does not have a bona-fide benefits plan; (2) the employee has no accrued benefits in the leave bank; (3) the employee has limited accrued leave benefits, and reducing that accrued leave will result in a negative balance; or (4) the employee already has a negative balance in the accrued leave bank. 

The DOL also opined that if an exempt employee’s accrued PTO is exhausted and the periods of insufficient work continued, the employer would not be permitted to send the employee home and pay him a reduced salary for the week.  The DOL distinguished this situation from the scenario discussed in a 1970 opinion letter, in which the employer was considering a permanent change in the work schedule from 52 five-day workweeks to 47 five-day workweeks and 5 four-day workweeks. "In that case," the DOL noted, "the salary basis requirement was not circumvented because all the exempt employees were to be paid according to a bona fide reduction of one-fifth of their salaries for a fixed schedule of five annually recurring four-day workweeks."

The distinguishing principle was stated in a 1995 DOL opinion letter:

... a fixed reduction in salary effective during a period when a company operates a shortened workweek due to economic conditions would be a bona fide reduction not designed to circumvent the salary basis payment. Therefore, the exemption would remain in effect as long as the employee receives the minimum salary required by the regulations and meets all the other requirements for the exemption.

My takeaway from these opinion letters is this:  Employers that are considering reducing their exempt employees' hours due to insufficient work must proceed very carefully.  Reducing exempt employees' hours of work, and reducing their pay correspondingly, may be permissible if the changes are carried out in accordance with a fixed schedule over an extended period of time.  An employer may not make reductions in work hours and pay based on day-to-day or week-to-week determinations of how much work is available.  Such reductions will run afoul of the salary basis test, risk forfeiture of the employees' exempt status, and expose the employer to overtime claims from the employees when their workload increases.     

Amid Tough Times, Furloughs Can Save Employers Money and Employees Jobs

The following is a reprint of a client alert authored by EBG attorneys Doug Weiner and Frank Morris, Jr.  It should be of interest to all Florida employers that are considering a reduction in force.

For many employers, these are desperate economic times. Every entity facing diminished revenue must consider cost cuts to survive. As news reports show, reductions in force (RIFs) are being used daily to achieve cost savings, and for some employers they may be the best solution. In some cases, however, the savings are not immediate as a result of statutorily required or voluntary notice periods, as well as costs of severance pay.

A different approach may be a furlough strategy, customized to fit each employer’s needs, which may also achieve a significant cost-savings benefit. Implementing a furlough can help retain the employer’s experienced workforce at a reduced cost, to help the enterprise weather the economic crisis. Most employees faced with, for example, the choice of a 20 percent annual pay reduction or the loss of their job would not hesitate to choose a reduction in pay. Further, both employers and employees taking advantage of a furlough program are well-positioned to take advantage of any increase in business activity in the inevitable economic recovery, whether it be this year or next. Furloughs are often viewed by the workforce more favorably than layoffs, thus preserving morale in the organization as well.

The Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) requires hourly and non-exempt salaried employees to be paid time-and-one-half their regular rate for weekly hours worked over forty. Accordingly, the first place to look for cuts in employee payroll costs is in non-exempt employee overtime pay. The FLSA was designed to give employers an incentive to spread employment from employees who work over forty weekly hours to other workers who are working fewer hours. In an environment where costs are critical, it is generally an inefficient use of payroll dollars to pay the additional wage premium required for overtime work.

Eliminating non-exempt overtime work is only the first step in reducing payroll costs among hourly non-exempt employees, salaried non-exempt employees and salaried exempt employees. Take an example in which it has been decided that in a department of 100 employees, where all three categories of employees work, that payroll expenses must be cut by 20 percent. One possibility is to reduce the department headcount by 20 percent, eliminating 20 jobs and the costs associated with them. Another possibility is to implement a mandatory furlough period with 20 percent pay cuts for all 100 employees. The furlough strategy takes more administrative time to manage properly, but it potentially saves 20 jobs while achieving the necessary cost-saving objective.

The FLSA allows employers to implement a variety of options to impose salary reductions and pay cuts, as do most state laws. A salary may be prospectively reduced without violating the “salary-basis” test of the FLSA for exempt employees, including a reduction in pay proportionate to a reduction in the number of days worked. Managers may implement furloughs and RIFs simultaneously or in a phased sequence. As with all such strategies, any applicable state and local requirements need to be determined, as federal law will defer to a state or local standard that provides a greater protection to the employee. California, as shown by the state’s decision to furlough state employees, allows furloughs to be implemented in accord with particular wage-hour requirements that must be considered.

The FLSA permits prospective adjustments to an exempt employee’s salary, including revisions to commission agreements or bonus compensation plans based on the quantity or quality of work, which do not reduce the “predetermined amount” of the employee’s salary (of course, the terms of the plans also need to be checked before changes are made). In concept, if the duties test for exemption is satisfied, the predetermined salary of, e.g., an exempt Sales Manager, could be as low as $455 per week, while the compensation the employee actually receives could be substantially higher (based upon commissions for meeting sales goals or bonuses for meeting other performance criteria). To preserve the salary basis of the exempt employee, the predetermined amount of salary would have to be paid for workweeks in which there were no commissions, or for which no bonus payments were made.

Careful strategic planning is required before implementing a furlough. Considerations include:

• Exempt salaried employees may have their salaries prospectively reduced to a lower predetermined amount so long as they stay above $455 per week. Salary adjustments may not be designed to circumvent the requirements of the FLSA.

• Hourly workers must be paid for every hour they are directed or permitted to work. Permitting “extra” work as, for example, spending more than de minimus time checking a Blackberry®, even when unauthorized, may well give rise to the obligation to pay for the time. Accordingly, managers must take the necessary steps to ensure the furlough plan realizes the necessary cost savings.

• It is a good practice to give employees clear notice specifying that no “volunteer work” is permissible and no work is to be performed unless specifically authorized by a predetermined schedule or authorization by an appropriate manager. Implementing a strict policy of prohibiting unscheduled work and having an administrative procedure to uniformly enforce the policy is well advised.

• Managers may consider asking hourly and salaried non-exempt employees for the return of employer-owned remote access devices during a furlough. Employees who access their work email accounts while on their “time off” may be working, or may start working. If they are working, even though advised not to do so, the employer may well incur wage liability, defeating the purpose of the furlough. Unauthorized work by non-exempt employees in violation of the employer’s furlough policy may generate exposure to significant wage claims. Violations of the furlough policy should be considered a serious disciplinary issue, warranting sanctions, including suspension and discharge. Withholding pay for hours actually worked, however, is not a legal option, even when the hours worked were not authorized.

• Salaries for exempt and non-exempt employees may be prospectively reduced so long as those adjustments are not so frequent as to appear designed to circumvent the requirements of the FLSA. Quarterly adjustments have been found by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit to be in compliance with the FLSA. Adjustments to the predetermined amounts of salary should be implemented as infrequently as feasible so as not to raise an argument that the adjustments are a pretext to avoid compliance with the FLSA.

In sum, properly implemented salary reductions should comply with the salary requirements of the FLSA. Although it requires strategic planning and careful implementation, employers may find many benefits by implementing an effective cost-savings furlough plan that saves money and jobs, versus the RIFs dominating the news.