In a much anticipated filing with the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal in State of Nevada, et a. v. United States Department of Labor, et al, the United States Department of Labor has made clear that it is not defending the Obama Administration’s overtime rule that would more than double the threshold for employees to qualify for most overtime exemptions. However, the Department has taken up the appeal filed by the previous Administration to reverse the preliminary injunction issued blocking implementation of the rule, requesting that the Court overturn as erroneous the Eastern District of Texas’ finding, and reaffirm the Department’s authority to establish a salary level test. And the Department has requested that the Court not address the validity of the specific salary level set by the 2016 final rule because the Department intends to revisit the salary level threshold through new rulemaking.

The litigation stems from action taken by the Department in May 2016 to issue a final rule that would have increased the minimum salary threshold for most overtime exemptions under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) from $23,660 per year to $47,476 per year. The rule was scheduled to become effective on December 1, 2016, but a federal judge issued a temporary injunction blocking its implementation just days beforehand.

Section 13(a) of the FLSA exempts from the Act’s minimum wage and overtime pay requirements “any employee employed in a bona fide executive, administrative, or professional [(“EAP”)] capacity * * * [specifically providing,] as such terms are defined and delimited from time to time by regulations of the Secretary [of Labor].” 29 U.S.C. § 213(a)(1). To be subject to this exemption, a worker must (1) be paid on a salary basis; (2) earn a specified salary level; and (3) satisfy a duties test.  In enjoining the 2016 rule, the District Court for the Eastern District of Texas reasoned that the salary-level component of this three-part test is unlawful, concluding that “Congress defined the EAP exemption with regard to duties, which does not include a minimum salary level,” and that the statute “does not grant the Department the authority to utilize a salary-level test.”

In seeking reversal of the preliminary injunction, the Department has argued that the Fifth Circuit expressly rejected the claim that the salary-level test is unlawful in Wirtz v. Mississippi Publishers Corp. In Wirtz, the Court reasoned that “[t]he statute gives the Secretary broad latitude to ‘define and delimit’ the meaning of the term ‘bona fide executive * * * capacity,” and he rejected the contention that “the minimum salary requirement is arbitrary or capricious.”  Further, the Department argues that every circuit to consider the issue has upheld the salary-level test as a permissible component of the EAP regulations.

By many accounts, the Department’s recently-appointed Labor Secretary, Alexander Acosta, has made clear that he does not think the salary level should be at $47,476 per year, but rather set at a more reasonable level between $30,000 and $35,000 per year. While Secretary Acosta may disagree with the salary level of the 2016 rule, the Department’s brief seems to make clear that he wants to ensure that he has the authority to set any salary threshold.

In issuing the preliminary injunction, the District Court did not address the validity of the salary level threshold set by the 2016 rule. Because the injunction rested on the legal conclusion that the Department lacks authority to set a salary level, it may be reversed on the ground that the legal ruling was erroneous. As a result, by requesting that the Fifth Circuit not address the validity of the salary level set by the 2016 rule, should the Court reverse the preliminary injunction without ruling on the salary level’s validity, it is unclear whether the 2016 rule will immediately go into effect pending new rulemaking. Employers need to stay tuned.

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

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

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

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

The District Court for the Eastern District of Texas has denied the U.S. Department of Labor’s application to stay the case in which the district court enjoined the DOL’s new overtime regulations. The DOL had asked the court for a stay while the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals considered an interlocutory appeal of the injunction.

As wage and hour practitioners know:

  • In May 2016, the U.S. Department of Labor announced that it would implement new regulations increasing the salary threshold for the executive, administrative, and professional overtime exemptions to $47,476 ($913 per week);
  • In September 2016, a group of 21 states filed a Complaint in the Eastern District of Texas challenging the new regulations. A similar lawsuit was filed in the same court by several private industry groups, and those plaintiffs moved for summary judgment; and
  • In November 2016, the district court issued a nationwide preliminary injunction against the new regulations. The district court made a preliminary conclusion that, because the FLSA did not reference any salary thresholds, the DOL had exceeded its authority.

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals granted the DOL’s application for interlocutory review, and ordered that briefing be concluded by January 31, 2017.

The DOL then sought a stay of the proceedings before the district court.

In denying the DOL’s motion, the district court stated that the decision to grant or deny a discretionary stay pending an interlocutory appeal depends on: (1) whether the application is likely to succeed on the merits; (2) whether the applicant will be irreparably injured without a stay; (3) whether a stay will substantially injure other parties; and (4) where the public interest lies.

The district court stated that the DOL’s application argued only that the outcome of the case “will likely be controlled in large part by the Fifth Circuit’s decision on appeal.” Because the DOL did not “present a substantial case on the merits,” its application for a stay was denied.

Accordingly, the proceedings before the Fifth Circuit and the district court will proceed concurrently. We will continue to monitor each of these matters, and share any significant developments.

The new episode of Employment Law This Week offers a year-end roundup of the biggest employment, workforce, and management issues in 2016:

  • Impact of the Defend Trade Secrets Act
  • States Called to Ban Non-Compete Agreements
  • Paid Sick Leave Laws Expand
  • Transgender Employment Law
  • Uncertainty Over the DOL’s Overtime Rule and Salary Thresholds
  • NLRB Addresses Joint Employment
  • NLRB Rules on Union Organizing

Watch the episode below and read EBG’s Take 5 newsletter, “Top Five Employment, Labor & Workforce Management Issues of 2016.”

Berger v. National Collegiate Athletic Association,
No. 14-cv-1710 (7th Cir. Dec. 5, 2016)

Colleges and universities, at least in the jurisdiction of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, surely breathed a collective sigh of relief earlier this month when the Court held that student athletes were not employees under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) and thus were not entitled to minimum wage.

Former student athletes at the University of Pennsylvania sued Penn, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (“NCAA”) and over 120 other colleges and universities that have Division I (the division that covers the largest schools) athletic programs, arguing that student athletes were employees entitled to the minimum wage. Interestingly, the court declined to use any of the multi-factor tests to resolve the issue because those tests would not capture the true nature of the relationship.

Instead, the court relied on the U.S. Department of Labor’s Field Operations Handbook, which indicates that students who participate in extracurricular activities are not employees of the school. In addition, the court took a common sense approach and recognized that college athletes participate in these programs for reasons wholly unrelated to immediate compensation and without any expectation of earning an income. Viewing student athletes as employees also would undermine what the court recognized as a “revered tradition of amateurism in college sports.”

Thus, the Seventh Circuit has added one more nail to the coffin of student athletes as employees. While some may argue that large colleges and universities should share some of the significant income they receive from football and other well attended games with the student athletes, that could signal a slide down a slippery slope. If student athletes were considered employees, what about student actors, orchestra members and any other students involved in extracurricular activities where performances mandate an admission fee? And in the last analysis, students receive a variety of non-economic benefits that distinguish these activities from “employment” within the meaning of the FLSA.

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.

Overtime Clock Faces - Abstract PhotoBarring some unexpected development or a last-minute injunction in one of the lawsuits challenging the new Department of Labor overtime rules, the new salary thresholds for white collar exemptions will go into effect on December 1, 2016.

That, of course, is now less than two weeks away.

We have written at length about those new rules, as well as the critical decisions that employers will need to make to comply with them:

  • Whether to increase employees’ salaries to meet the new thresholds;
  • Whether to reclassify employees as non-exempt and begin to pay them hourly rates, plus overtime;
  • What hourly rates to set for reclassified employees so as not to pay them more than employers intend – or less; and
  • How these decisions will impact other employees and the employers’ salary structures.

Hopefully, most employers have already addressed these issues internally and will be prepared to comply with the new rules on or before December 1, 2016.

But for those who have not, the clock is ticking, and waiting to address these issues until after December 1, 2016 could lead to potential claims that might be exceedingly difficult to defend.

On January 20, 2016, the DOL issued Wage and Hour Division Administrator’s Interpretation 2016-1 (“AI”) providing that businesses that use employees of third parties may be considered “joint employers” of those workers for purposes of compliance with the FLSA. The genesis of the joint-employment AI is the DOL’s expectation that businesses may seek to avoid the high costs and potential liabilities of maintaining their own employee workforce.

Although this AI is less than a year old, there are longstanding federal regulations on joint employment stating that when the employee performs work that simultaneously benefits two or more employers, or works for two or more employers at different times during the workweek, a joint-employment relationship generally will be considered to exist in situations where: (1) employers share an employee’s services, (2) one employer acts in the interest of the other employer in relation to the employee, or (3) one employer controls the other employer and therefore shares control of the other employer.

The DOL’s AI on joint employment goes far beyond the streamlined regulations in explaining the complex and comprehensive analysis to determine whether joint employment exists. To that end, the AI focuses on the DOL’s newly envisioned concepts of “horizontal” and “vertical” joint employment.

“Horizontal” Joint Employment

The DOL has explained that “horizontal” joint employment exists where an employee has employment relationships with two or more related or commonly owned businesses. In assessing horizontal joint employment, the DOL focuses on the relationship between the businesses, i.e., putative joint employers, but not the putative employee’s relationship between and among the putative joint employers. The DOL provides, as an example, a server who works for two different restaurants that are commonly owned.

To determine whether horizontal joint employment exists, the DOL considers the following eight criteria:

  1. Is there common ownership or management with respect to the putative joint employers?
  2. Do the putative joint employers have common officers, directors, executives, or directors?
  3. Do the putative joint employers share control over operations of both businesses?
  4. Are the operations of the putative joint employers’ businesses interrelated?
  5. Do the putative joint employers supervise the same employees?
  6. Do the putative joint employers treat employees as part of a pool available to both businesses?
  7. Do the putative joint employers share clients or customers?
  8. Do the putative joint employers maintain any agreements?

“Vertical” Joint Employment

The DOL has explained that “vertical” joint employment occurs when a worker employed by a third party enters into a work relationship with the putative joint employer. This arrangement commonly involves staffing agencies.

The AI states that in a vertical employment arrangement, the DOL considers the relationship between the putative joint employers and the worker. The DOL will first examine whether the worker’s direct employer, e.g., the staffing agency, is actually an employee of the putative joint employer. If such a relationship exists, then the DOL automatically finds joint employment.

If no such relationship exists, the DOL will then conduct an “economic realities” analysis to determine whether an employee of one business, e.g., the staffing agency, is economically dependent on another business that is the beneficiary of the services performed by the staffing agency’s employee. The AI provides the following economic realities criteria:

  • Directing, Controlling, or Supervising the Work Performed. To the extent that the work performed by the employee is controlled or supervised by the putative joint employer beyond a reasonable degree of contract performance oversight, such control suggests that the employee is economically dependent on the putative joint employer. The potential joint employer’s control can be indirect and still be sufficient to indicate economic dependence by the employee.
  • Controlling Employment Conditions. To the extent that the putative joint employer has the power to hire or fire the employee, modify employment conditions, or determine the rate or method of pay, such control indicates that the employee is economically dependent on the putative joint employer.
  • Permanency and Duration of Relationship. An indefinite, permanent, full-time, or long-term relationship by the employee with the putative joint employer suggests economic dependence.
  • Repetitive Nature of Work. To the extent that the employee’s work for the putative joint employer is repetitive, relatively unskilled, or requires little or no training, such facts indicate that the employee is economically dependent on the putative joint employer.
  • Integral to Business. If the employee’s work is an integral part of the putative joint employer’s business, that fact indicates that the employee is economically dependent on the putative joint employer.
  • Work Performed on Premises. The employee’s performance of the work on premises owned or controlled by the putative joint employer indicates that the employee is economically dependent on the putative joint employer.
  • Performing Administrative Functions Commonly Performed by Employers. To the extent that the putative joint employer performs administrative functions for the employee—such as handling payroll; providing workers’ compensation insurance; providing necessary facilities and safety equipment, housing, or transportation; or supplying tools and materials required for the work—such facts indicate economic dependence by the employee on the putative joint employer.

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

Perhaps in response to protests brought by employees and their advocates in recent years, states, counties, and cities across America have been increasing their minimum wage in piecemeal fashion. Few employers are fortunate enough to need worry about only one minimum wage—the federal minimum wage that is the floor below which employers may not go (unless an employer is not covered under the FLSA). Most large employers that operate in multiple states must now navigate a minimum-wage patchwork in which the hourly rate varies from state to state and, sometimes, between counties and cities.

Although the federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, 29 states and the District of Columbia have a minimum wage greater than the federal minimum wage. And those states are consistently increasing their minimum wage—New Jersey just passed legislation increasing its minimum wage from $8.38 per hour to $8.44 per hour, effective January 1, 2017, which is also when the Montana minimum wage will go from $8.05 to $8.15 per hour.

California is arguably the most difficult minimum-wage patchwork for employers to navigate. From a present minimum wage of $10 per hour, the California minimum wage will increase one dollar per hour each year until it reaches $15 per hour in 2022. But those increases also result in increasing the minimum salary that must be paid to employees who qualify for most overtime exemptions in California. Because most exempt employees in California must make at least twice the minimum wage on an annual basis, the current minimum salary for exempt employees who work for employers having more than 25 employees will increase from the present minimum of $41,600 per year to a minimum of $62,400 by 2022. (However, if the DOL’s rule goes into effect on December 1, 2016, requiring a new minimum salary of $47,476, then that will be the new floor below which employers may not pay their employees on a salary basis.)

In addition to minimum-wage increases on a statewide level, numerous California cities and counties have passed ordinances increasing their own minimum wages. From San Diego to Berkeley, the minimum wage in many cities has increased quicker than the state minimum wage. California’s minimum wage is presently $10.00 per hour. Employers in Santa Clara and Palo Alto, however, must pay their employees at least $11.00 per hour. Employees across the bay in Oakland must be paid at least $12.25 per hour. San Diego employers must pay their employees $10.50 per hour, as do Santa Monica employers that employ more than 25 employees.

California cities are not the only ones that have increased their minimum wage faster than their resident states. Employers in Albuquerque have had an $8.50 minimum wage since 2013, greater than the $7.50 required under New Mexico law. Similarly, Chicago has a $10.50 minimum wage, although Illinois mandates only $8.25. Seattle businesses that employ less than 500 persons must pay their employees $12.00 per hour, but Washington has a minimum wage of only $9.47.

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

Over the past year, there has been an increased discussion of Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) requirements for tipped employees. The courts have focused on a number of issues related to tipped employees, including addressing who can participate in tip pools and whether certain deductions may be made from tips. While the FLSA requires employers to pay a minimum wage of $7.25 per hour in most cases, Section 203(m) of the FLSA provides that employers may take a “tip credit” and pay as little as $2.13 per hour to employees who customarily and regularly receive tips, so long as two criteria are satisfied:

  • the employee’s wages and tips are at least equal to the minimum wage, and
  • all tips “received” by a tipped employee are actually retained by the employee or added into a tip pool that aggregates the tips of a group of tipped employees.

Notably, 29 CFR § 531.55 states that a “compulsory charge for service . . . imposed on a customer by an employer’s establishment, is not a tip . . . .” However, some states (such as New York) have their own requirements for determining whether a service charge will be considered a “tip.”

Who Can Be Treated as a Tipped Employee?

When a tip pool is covered by Section 203(m) of the FLSA, an employer may not divert tips from tipped employees by including “non-customarily tipped employees” in the tip pools. But whether an employee customarily (and regularly) receives tips may be unclear.

In Montano v. Montrose Restaurant, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit considered a tip pool in which the employer included a “coffeeman,” and the parties submitted conflicting evidence regarding the coffeeman’s duties. The Fifth Circuit concluded that an employee can be part of a tip pool if it can be expected that the customer intended the employee to receive a portion of the tip. Satisfying that requirement depends on such factors as whether the employee had more than a de minimis interaction with the customers who leave the undesignated tips and whether the employee is engaging in customer service functions.

In Schaefer v. Walker Bros. Enterprises, the Seventh Circuit evaluated a plaintiff’s contention that he and other employees at his restaurant (who primarily worked in a tipped capacity) had to be paid the full minimum wage during any time spent performing non-tipped work. The Seventh Circuit noted that the DOL’s Field Operations Handbook states that an employer may pay the tip-credit rate for time that tipped employees spend on non-tipped duties “related to” their tipped work. According to the Seventh Circuit, making coffee, cleaning tables, and “ensuring that hot cocoa is ready to serve” and that “strawberries are spread on the waffles” are activities related to a tipped server’s work. The Seventh Circuit characterized other duties, however, such as wiping down burners and woodwork and dusting picture frames, as “problematic” because they did not seem to be “closely related to tipped duties.” But the time spent on those duties was “negligible” and therefore did not require the restaurants to pay the normal minimum wage rather than the tip-credit rate for those minutes.

Can Credit Card Fees Be Deducted from “All Tips”?

In Steele v. Leasing Enterprises, Ltd., the Fifth Circuit considered whether an employee is receiving “all tips” when an employer deducts the costs and fees associated with collecting tips that are paid through a customer’s credit card.

To offset costs associated with credit card tips, the defendant retained 3.25 percent of any tips paid by credit card. According to the defendant, the costs included not only fees charged by the card issuer, but also the cost of cash deliveries made by an armored vehicle three times per week to ensure that the employees could be paid their tips on a daily basis (as the employees had requested).

Based on prior authority from the Sixth Circuit and a DOL opinion letter, the Fifth Circuit agreed that the defendant could offset credit card tips by the amount of the credit card issuer fees and still satisfy the requirements of Section 203(m). One week later, the Southern District of Ohio reached a similar conclusion in Craig v. Landry’s, Inc., ruling that “controlling precedent specifically permits” the deduction of credit card processing fees as long as the amount of the deduction “reasonably approximates the charge incurred by the employer.”

What Other Fees or Costs Can Be Deducted from “All Tips”?

After approving the deduction of credit card issuer fees from the gross tips in Steele, the Fifth Circuit turned to the question of whether an employer violates Section 203(m)’s requirements if the employer deducts costs other than direct fees charged by the credit card issuers. The defendant argued that employers could deduct the additional expenditures associated with paying credit card tips and still maintain the tip credit. Specifically, the defendant argued that the additional costs that it was incurring in arranging for the payment of tips paid via credit card, such as the cost of the armored car deliveries to its restaurants, could be deducted from the gross tips.

The Fifth Circuit concluded that “an employer only has a legal right to deduct those costs that are required to make such a collection.” While the defendant had no choice but to pay to credit card issuer fees, the costs relating to its thrice-weekly armored car deliveries were discretionary costs resulting from internal business decisions by the defendant. Therefore, deducting those amounts from employees’ tips was a violation of Section 203(m).

It is worth noting the Eastern District of New York added an interesting twist to this principle in Widjaja v. Kang Yue USA Corp. The court had previously ruled that the defendant violated the minimum wage as a result of, among other things, improperly withholding 11.5 percent of credit card tips. In a late-2015 ruling on damages, the court found that the defendant was liable for the difference between the minimum wage and the hourly wage that it actually paid its tipped employees. Moreover, the court in Widjaja held that the wage deficiency could not be offset by the tips actually received by the tipped employees because those tips were not an hourly wage. Consequently, because it improperly applied the tip-credit rule, the employer received no credit against the minimum wage for the tips actually received by its tipped employees.

Is There a Cause of Action for Withheld Tips If the Employer Does Not Take a Tip Credit?

Several years ago, the DOL revised 29 C.F.R. § 531.52 to provide that all tips are the property of the employee and, thus, must be passed along to the tipped employee or a pool of tipped employees regardless of whether the employer has taken a tip credit under Section 203(m). Because the FLSA, on its face, does not specifically prohibit or address wage deductions that do not result in minimum-wage violations, there has been substantial controversy regarding the DOL’s authority to issue this regulation.

Earlier this year, in Oregon Rest. & Lodging Ass’n v. Perez, the Ninth Circuit noted that Section 203(m) of the FLSA is silent as to employers that do not take a tip credit. Therefore, the Ninth Circuit concluded that the DOL has the authority to regulate “tip pooling” practices even if employers do not take tip credits. Conversely, this past summer, federal courts in Florida and Georgia arguably joined with the position taken by the Fourth Circuit and courts in Maryland, New York, and Utah that Section 203(m) of the FLSA does not create a cause of action for improperly withheld tips unless the employer is taking a tip credit.

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