White Collar Exemptions (General)

Even employers who were opposed to the new overtime regulations are in a quandary after the District Court for the Eastern District of Texas enjoined the Department of Labor from implementing new salary thresholds for the FLSA’s “white collar” exemptions.

Will the injunction become permanent?  Will it be upheld by the Fifth Circuit? 

Will the Department of Labor continue to defend the case when the Trump Administration is in place? 

What does the rationale behind the District Court’s injunction (that the language of the FLSA suggests exempt status should be determined based only on an employee’s duties) mean for the $455-per-week salary threshold in the “old” regulations?

As noted in our post regarding the injunction, whether employers can reverse salary increases that already have been implemented or announced is an issue that should be approached carefully.

For example, employers should be aware that state law may specify the amount of notice that an employer must provide to an employee before changing his or her pay.

In most states, employers merely need to give employees notice of a change in pay before the beginning of the pay period in which the new wage rate comes into effect.

But some states require impose additional requirements.  The New York Department of Labor, for example, explains that if the information in an employee’s wage statement changes, “the employer must tell employees at least a week before it happens unless they issue a new paystub that carries the notice. The employer must notify an employee in writing before they reduce the employee’s wage rate. Employers in the hospitality industry must give notice every time a wage rate changes.”

Maryland (and Iowa) requires notice at least one pay period in advance.  Alaska, Maine, Missouri, North Carolina, Nevada and South Carolina have their own notice requirements.

Employers who are making changes to wage rates based on the status of the DOL’s regulations should be nimble – while also making sure that they are providing the notice required under state law.

In May of this year, the U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”) announced its final rule to increase the minimum salary for white-collar exemptions, effective December 1, 2016. With less than two months to go before that new rule takes effect, employers still have time to decide how to address those otherwise exempt employees whose current salaries would not satisfy the new rule, by either increasing their salaries or converting them to non-exempt status.

The New Salary Thresholds

Effective December 1, 2016, the salary threshold for the executive, administrative, and professional exemption will effectively double, increasing from $23,660 ($455 per week) to $47,476 ($913 per week). This increase is but one of the changes that goes into effect on December 1.

The total annual compensation requirement for “highly compensated employees” subject to a minimal duties test will also increase from $100,000 to $134,004. The salary basis test will be amended to allow employers to use non-discretionary bonuses and incentive payments, such as commissions, to satisfy up to 10 percent of the salary threshold. And the salary threshold for the white-collar exemptions will automatically update every three years to “ensure that they continue to provide useful and effective tests for exemption.”

On first glance, dealing with the increase in the minimum salaries for white-collar exemptions would not appear to create much of a challenge for employers—they must decide whether to increase employees’ salaries or convert them to non-exempt status. Many employers that have already reviewed the issue and its repercussions would likely disagree with the assessment that this is a simple task. The decisions not only impact the affected employees but also affect the employers’ budgets and compensation structures, potentially creating unwanted salary compressions or forcing employers to adjust the salaries of other employees.

In addition, converting employees to non-exempt status requires an employer to set new hourly rates for the employees. If that is not done carefully, it could result in the employee receiving an unanticipated increase in compensation—perhaps a huge one— or an unexpected decrease in annual compensation.

The Impact on Compensation Structures

For otherwise exempt employees whose compensation already satisfies the new minimum salaries, nothing need be done to comply with the new DOL rule. But that does not mean that those employees will not be affected by the new rule. Employers that raise the salaries of other employees to comply with the new thresholds could create operational or morale issues for those whose salaries are not being adjusted. It is not difficult to conceive of situations where complying with the rule by only addressing the compensation of those who fall below the threshold would result in a lower-level employee leapfrogging over a higher-level employee in terms of compensation, or where it results in unwanted salary compression. Salary shifts could also affect any analysis of whether the new compensation structure adversely affects individuals in protected categories. A female senior manager who is now being paid only several hundred dollars per year more than the lower-level male manager might well raise a concern about gender discrimination if her salary is not also adjusted.

The Impact of Increasing Salaries

For otherwise exempt employees who currently do not earn enough to satisfy the new minimum salary thresholds, employers have two choices: increase the salary to satisfy the new threshold or convert the employee to non-exempt status. Converting employees to non-exempt status can create challenges in attempting to set their hourly rates (addressed separately below).

If, for example, an otherwise exempt employee currently earns a salary of $47,000 per year, the employer may have an easy decision to give the employee a raise of at least $476 to satisfy the new threshold. But many decisions would not be so simple, particularly once they are viewed outside of a vacuum. What about the employee earning $40,000? Should that employee be given a raise of more than $7,000 or should she be converted to non-exempt status? It is not difficult to see how one employer would choose to give an employee a $7,000 raise while another would choose to convert that employee to non-exempt status.

What if the amount of an increase seems small, but it would have a large impact because of the number of employees affected? A salary increase of $5,000 for a single employee to meet the new salary threshold may not have a substantial impact upon many employers. But what if the employer would need to give that $5,000 increase to 500 employees across the country to maintain their exempt status? Suddenly, maintaining the exemption would carry a $2,500,000 price tag. And that is not a one-time cost; it is an annual one that would likely increase as the salary threshold is updated.

The Impact of Reclassifying an Employee as Non-Exempt

If an employer decides to convert an employee to non-exempt status, it faces a new challenge—setting the employee’s hourly rate. Doing that requires much more thought than punching numbers into a calculator.

If the employer “reverse engineers” an hourly rate by just taking the employee’s salary and assuming the employee works 52 weeks a year and 40 hours each week, it will result in the employee earning the same amount as before so long as she does not work any overtime. The employee will earn more than she did before if she works any overtime at all. And if she works a significant amount of overtime, the reclassification to non-exempt status could result in the employee earning significantly more than she earned before as an exempt employee. If she worked 10 hours of overtime a week, she would effectively receive a 37 percent increase in compensation.

But calculating the employee’s new hourly rate based on an expectation that she will work more overtime than is realistic would result in the employee earning less than she did before. If, for instance, the employer calculated an hourly rate by assuming that the employee would work 10 hours of overtime each week, and if she worked less than that, she would earn less than she did before—perhaps significantly less. That, of course, could lead to a severe morale issue—or to the unwanted departure of a valued employee.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Take 5 newsletter Five Critical Wage and Hour Issues Impacting Employers.”

A group of 21 states (“the States”) has filed a Complaint in the Eastern District of Texas challenging the new regulations from U.S. Department of Labor that re-define the white collar exemptions to the overtime requirements of the FLSA.  The States argue the DOL overstepped its authority by, among other things, establishing a new minimum salary threshold for those exemptions.

Pursuant to the new regulations from the U.S. Department of Labor, effective December 1, 2016:

  • the salary threshold for the executive, administrative, and professional exemption will effectively double from $23,660 ($455 per week) to $47,476 ($913 per week);
  • “Highly Compensated Employees” (“HCEs”) must earn annual compensation of at least $100,000; and
  • an indexing mechanism will be applied to automatically update the salary threshold and the HCE compensation requirement every three years.

The Complaint challenges each of the new regulations, and seeks declaratory and injunctive relief.

The Salary Threshold Allegedly Violates the FLSA

The Complaint filed by the States points out that the FLSA itself makes no reference any salary threshold, but rather speaks only to the duties of exempt employees.

Specifically, the plain language of 29 U.S.C. §213 states that the FLSA’s overtime requirements do not apply to “any employee employed in a bona fide executive, administrative, or professional capacity…” The Complaint states that the statute “speaks in terms of ‘activities,’ not salary.”

The new salary threshold would take away the exempt status of millions of executive, administrative and professional employees. On that basis, the Complaint alleges that the new regulations violate the FLSA and are an improper exercise of legislative power by an Executive agency.

The Complaint also alleges that the language of the FLSA does not allow for (i) the salary basis test itself, (ii) the distinct compensation threshold for highly compensated employees or (iii) the indexing mechanism in the new regulations that would automatically update the salary threshold.

The Complaint notes that DOL regulations have provided for a salary threshold at some level since 1940, but suggests that the DOL’s authority to do so was never challenged.

The Tenth Amendment Allegedly Precludes Applying the Regulations to the States

The Complaint further alleges that the new salary threshold violates the Tenth Amendment by allowing the Executive Branch to infringe upon state sovereignty and federalism by dictating the wages that States must pay to their own employees.

The Complaint admits that the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the application of the FLSA to the states, but suggests that the issue should be revisited in light of the new regulations and the burdens they impose on the 21 States seeking relief.

Moreover, the Complaint points to the potential for future abuse through the application of a salary threshold to States. Because “there is apparently no ceiling over which DOL cannot set the salary level,” the DOL could raise the salary threshold however it sees fit.  The Complaint therefore contends that the Executive Branch could “deplete State resources, forcing the States to adopt or acquiesce to federal policies, instead of implementing State policies and priorities.”

The New Regulations Allegedly Violate the APA

The Complaint proceeds to contend that (i) the automatic updates to the salary threshold and HCE compensation requirements violate the notice-and-comment requirements of the federal Administrative Procedure Act and the FLSA’s requirement that the white collar exemptions be “defined and delimited from time to time by regulations of the Secretary ….”; and (ii) the new regulations are arbitrary and capricious in violation of the APA.

More than 50 business groups including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and the National Retail Federation filed a separate lawsuit in the same court and on the same day.  The business groups also contending the new DOL regulations were implemented in violation of the APA.

The States lawsuit alleges some novel and interesting theories to challenge the Department of Labor’s new regulations, and the District Court’s response to these claims bears watching as the effective date of the new regulations draws near.

Time Is Running Out for Employers to Make Important Decisions to Comply with New DOL Overtime Exemption RuleIn May, the Department of Labor (“DOL”) announced its final rule to increase the minimum salary for white collar exemptions.  With little more than two months to go before that new rule takes effect on December 1, 2016, employers still have time to decide how to address those otherwise exempt employees whose current salaries would not satisfy the new rule by either increasing their salaries or converting them to non-exempt status.

But some of those decisions may not be easy ones.  And they may create some unexpected challenges, both financially and operationally.

New Salary Thresholds

Effective December 1, 2016, the salary threshold for the executive, administrative, and professional exemption will effectively double, increasing from $23,660 ($455 per week) to $47,476 ($913 per week).

The total annual compensation requirement for “highly compensated employees” subject to a minimal duties test will also increase from $100,000 to $134,004. The salary basis test will be amended to allow employers to use non-discretionary bonuses and incentive payments, such as commissions, to satisfy up to 10 percent of the salary threshold.  And the salary threshold for the white collar exemptions will automatically update every three years to “ensure that they continue to provide useful and effective tests for exemption.”

Impact Upon Compensation Structures

For otherwise exempt employees whose compensation already satisfy the new minimum salaries, nothing need be done to comply with the new DOL rule.  But that does not mean that those employees will not be affected by the new rule.

If employers are raising the salaries of other employees to comply with the new thresholds, it could create operational or morale issues for those whose salaries are not being adjusted.

Take, for instance, an otherwise exempt senior manager who currently earns $48,000 per year.  Her salary need not be adjusted to comply with the new rule.

But if she is higher in the  organizational hierarchy than a manager who currently earns $36,000 per year, and if that lower-level manager is given a salary increase to meet the new $47,476 threshold, it is not difficult to see how there could be an issue with the senior manager.  The senior manager would now earn only a little more each year than the manager who falls beneath her in the hierarchy.

If the employer then adjusts her salary – and everyone else’s – to maintain its compensation structure, the impact of increasing the salary of a single manager to comply with the new rule will not be just the amount of the increase in his salary to meet the new threshold; it will be the increases in all of the salaries that it triggers.

That is but one example.  It is not difficult to conceive of situations where complying with the rule by only addressing the compensation of those who fall below the threshold would result in a lower level employee leapfrogging over a higher level employee in terms of compensation, or where it results in unwanted salary compression.

And that is to say nothing of the impact that salary shifts could have upon any analysis of whether the new compensation structure adversely affects individuals in protected categories.  In the example above, the female senior manager who is now being paid only several hundred dollars per year more than the lower-level male manager might well raise a concern about gender discrimination if her salary is not also adjusted.

Impact of Increasing Salaries

For otherwise exempt employees who currently do not earn enough to satisfy the new minimum salary thresholds, employers have two choices: increase the salary to satisfy the new threshold or convert the employee to non-exempt status.

Some of those decisions may be relatively simple, particularly when viewed in a vacuum, but some may be more difficult.

If an otherwise exempt employee currently earns a salary of $47,000 per year, the employer may have an easy decision to give the employee a raise of at least $476 to satisfy the new threshold.

And if any employee currently earns $24,000 per year, an employer may have an easy decision to convert the employee to non-exempt status rather than give the employee a raise of more than $20,000.

But what about the employee earning $40,000 per year?  Should that employee be given a raise of more than $7,000 or should she be converted to non-exempt status?  It is not difficult to see how one employer would choose to give an employee a $7,000 raise while another would choose to convert that employee to non-exempt status.

And what if the amount of an increase seems small, but it would have a large impact because of the number of employees affected?  A salary increase of $5,000 for a single employee to meet the new salary threshold may not have a substantial impact upon many employers.  But what if the employer would need to give that $5,000 increase to 500 employees across the country to maintain their exempt status?  Suddenly, maintaining the exemption would carry a $2,500,000 price tag.  And that is not a one-time cost; it is an annual one that would likely increase as the salary threshold is updated.

Impact of Reclassifying an Employee As Non-Exempt

If an employer decides to convert an employee to non-exempt status, it faces a new challenge – setting the employee’s hourly rate.

If the employer “reverse engineers” an hourly rate by just taking the employee’s salary and assuming the employee works 52 weeks a year and 40 hours each week, it will result in the employee earning the same amount as before so long as she does not work any overtime.  The employee will earn more than she did before if she works any overtime at all.  And if she works a significant amount of overtime, the reclassification to non-exempt status could result in the employee earning significantly more than she earned before as an exempt employee.  If she worked 10 hours of overtime a week, she would effectively receive a 37% increase in compensation as a result of her reclassification.

But calculating the employee’s new hourly rate based on an expectation that she will work more overtime than is realistic would result in the employee earning less than she did before.  If, for instance, the employer calculated an hourly rate by assuming that the employee would work 10 hours of overtime each week, and if she worked less than that, she would earn less annually than she did before – perhaps significantly less. That, of course, could lead to a severe morale issue – or to the unwanted departure of a valued employee.

In calculating the new hourly rate for employees they are reclassifying, employers should be careful to do so based upon realistic expectations of the overtime each of those employees will work such that it does not end up paying them significantly more – or significantly less – than they intend.

Whatever employers decide to do, the December 1, 2016, deadline is getting closer each day.

 

As our readers know, for the purposes of certain blog entries, I have unilaterally declared that I am the Secretary of Labor.

Effective immediately:

  1. The “computer professional” exemption applies to anyone with a salary of at least $800 per week whose primary duty requires “highly specialized knowledge of computers and software.”  The exemption now includes employees who provide help desk services, troubleshooting support, or who install hardware or software.
  2. In regard to New York law, building owners who provide free apartments to their janitors can still count the value of the apartment as wages.  However, that value is no longer based on the rental rate of the apartment on June 1, 1975.
    • Building owners will be credited with the current fair market value of the apartment, and janitors will be paid on an hourly basis.
    • As under federal law, a New York janitor who resides in the employer’s building is not considered as working all the time he is on the premises.  Any reasonable agreement of the parties as to the number of hours worked will be accepted.
  3. To clarify: time spent waiting for a security bag check at the end of a shift is not compensable “hours worked.”Generally, time spent going to or coming from work is not working time.  Preliminary and postliminary activities may be compensable if they are “integral and indispensable” to an employee’s principal duties.  However, general security does not relate to anyone’s particular duties, so it’s not compensable.
  4. California law is preempted.  It’s just time.
  5. The ability to use mobile devices for business communications while an employee is away from the workplace is a benefit to the employee as well as the employer.  Therefore, using a mobile device to read or respond to electronic communications for less than 20 minutes per day shall be considered de minimis amount of time and therefore shall not be compensable

Let’s get to work.

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.  

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.

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.

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.

 

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.