Tipped Employees Under the FLSA

Our colleagues Kara Maciel and Jordan Schwartz, both of Epstein Becker Green, recently cowrote an article for PLC titled "Tipped Employees Under the FLSA."

Following is an excerpt:

Wage and hour lawsuits certainly are not new phenomena, but in recent years, service industry employees have increasingly made claims regarding tips and service charges. In particular, employers in states such as Massachusetts, New York and California have seen a surge in class actions involving compulsory tip pools and distributions of service charges to employees. Commonly targeted employers include large restaurant and coffee chains, as well as upscale eateries, many of which feature celebrity chefs.

The US Department of Labor (DOL) Wage and Hour Division (WHD) under the Obama Administration has taken an aggressive stance against wage and hour violations, leading to strict rules regarding proper tip pooling and service charge practices. As a result, many businesses with tipped employees, most notably in the food service and hospitality industry, face significant legal exposure arising from improper practices relating to the retention and distribution of tips and service charges.

To help employers comply with this complex and developing area of the law, this Note discusses and explains:

  • Federal law on tips and service charges and the interaction with state laws.
  • Who are considered tipped employees.
  • Disbursement of tips and service charges.
  • Tip pooling requirements.
  • States experiencing a high volume of class action litigation on this topic.
  • Best practices for compliance.

Download the full article, here, in PDF format.

DOL Extends FLSA Protection to Direct Care Workers

by Jeffrey H. Ruzal

On September 17, 2013, the U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”) issued a final rule extending the federal minimum wage and overtime pay protection under the Fair Labor Standards Act (the “FLSA”) to many direct care or domestic service workers, including home health aides, personal care aides and nursing assistants. The rule will take effect on January 1, 2015. 

For almost 40 years, an exemption from the minimum wage and overtime requirements of the FLSA has applied to domestic service workers employed to provide “companionship services” for an elderly person or a person with an illness, injury, or disability. 

Under the new rule, direct care workers employed by home care agencies and other third parties will no longer be exempt from the minimum wage and overtime requirements. Individual workers who are employed directly by the person or family receiving companionship services will remain exempt under the FLSA. 

Furthermore, the tasks that comprise “companionship services” are now more clearly defined. “Companionship services,” according to the DOL, means services for the care, fellowship, and protection of persons who because of advanced age or infirmity cannot care for themselves. Such services include meal preparation, bed making, and clothes washing.

Direct care workers who perform medical or medically-related services for which training is a prerequisite are not considered companionship workers, and thus are not exempt from protection under the FLSA.

General household work can be “companionship services,” as long as it does not exceed 20% of the total weekly hours worked by the companion employee. If this 20% limit is exceeded, the employee must be paid in compliance with the minimum wage and overtime pay requirements of the FLSA. 

According to the DOL’s news release, there are an estimated 1.9 million direct care workers in the United States, nearly all of whom are currently employed by home care agencies. 

DOL Tip Pooling Rule Held Invalid by Federal Court

By: Kara Maciel and Jordan Schwartz

As discussed in prior blogs, due to confusion surrounding FLSA tip pool requirements, the U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”) Wage and Hour Division enacted a strict rule in 2011 related to proper tip pooling and service charge practices. This rule was met with swift legal challenges, and earlier this week the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon 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 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 court, 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.

The DOL initially announced that in accordance with the Woody Woo decision, it would permit employers in the Ninth Circuit to impose mandatory tip pooling on employees who did not customarily and regularly receive tips. However, on April 5, 2011, the DOL issued regulations that directly conflicted with the holding in Woody Woo. At that time, it was unclear whether the DOL would enforce the new regulations against employers in the Ninth Circuit. In early 2012, the DOL clarified its position on tip pooling by fully rejecting the Ninth Circuit’s decision 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 rule prohibiting mandatory tip pools that include such employees who do not customarily and regularly receive tips.

Shortly after the DOL’s final rule, hospitality groups, including the Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association, the Washington Restaurant Association, and the Alaska CHARR, filed a lawsuit against the DOL challenging the agency’s regulations that exclude back-of-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 court granted the plaintiffs’ summary judgment motion, holding that the DOL exceeded its authority by issuing regulations on tip pooling in restaurants. The 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. Quoting the Ninth Circuit’s opinion in Woody Woo, the court explained that “[a] statute that provides that a person must do X in order to achieve Y does not mandate that a person must do X, period.”

The 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 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.

Wage & Hour FAQ # 3: What to Expect During a DOL "Walk Around" Inspection.

By Elizabeth Bradley

This on-going series of blog posts flows from EBG’s publication of its Wage and Hour Division Investigation Checklist for employers. The Checklist, along with this series, is aimed at guiding employers through DOL Wage and Hour Division Investigations. 

We have previously blogged our way through How to Prepare for a Wage and Hour Inspection, What to Do When a Wage and Hour Investigation Team Arrives to Start Auditing, and What Records Must be Provided to the DOL. In this post, we discuss what to expect during the “walk around” inspection portion of the on-site inspection. 

QUESTION: What is the purpose of the “walk around” inspection?

ANSWER: Quite simply, the Investigator is going to observe your employees performing their job duties and look for wage and hour violations. 

QUESTION: What will the Investigator do during the “walk around?”

ANSWER: In addition to observing the normal operations of the facility and the employees performing their job duties, the Investigator will likely stop and talk with a number of your hourly employees as he/she encounters them on the walk through. The Investigator will also provide these employees with his/her business card and advise them that they can contact the DOL directly. While the manager cannot prohibit the Investigator from conducting a “walk around” or speaking with hourly employees, the manager can ensure that these activities are done in a manner that limits the disruption to normal business operations.

QUESTION: Do you have to allow the Investigator access to the facility unaccompanied?

ANSWER: No. A manager should escort the Investigator through the facility at ALL times, except when conducting an interview of a non-management employee. 

QUESTION: What should the manager be doing during the “walk around?”

ANSWER: The “walk around” is a good opportunity for an employer to obtain information about the focus of the investigation. The manager should not be a passive passenger on the walk around. Rather, the manager should take detailed notes including tracking which employees the Investigator asks to interview, the subjects of the Investigator’s questions, and the subjects of the Investigator’s written notes. Essentially, the manager should note everything the Investigator says, does, and asks.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Are you now wondering what your rights are during the employee interviews? If so, subscribe to this blog. As part of this on-going series, in a subsequent FAQ, we will discuss employee interviews including understanding the role of the investigator, your role in the interview process, and how to prepare both management and non-management employees for interview.

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. 

Wage & Hour FAQ #3: What Records Must Be Provided to the Department of Labor?

By Michael D. Thompson

From restaurants in New York to childcare providers in Arkansas to the garment industry in Southern California, Department of Labor investigators continue to uncover FLSA violations by conducting unannounced workplace inspections.

Accordingly, in January, we released our Wage and Hour Division Investigation Checklist for employers and have received terrific feedback with additional questions. Following up on your questions, we will be regularly posting FAQs as a regular feature of our Wage & Hour Defense Blog.

We previously blogged about how to prepare for an audit, and how to develop a general protocol for the investigation.  In this post, we will discuss which records should be made available to Wage Hour Investigators.

QUESTION:  Do we have to allow the DOL to inspect our private business records?  What records do we have to make available, and what documents should we withhold?

ANSWER:  Your company cannot rely on general claims of privacy or property rights as a basis for keeping the DOL from inspecting its wage and hour records .  In fact, Section 11(a) of the FLSA specifically authorizes representatives of the Department of Labor to investigate and gather data concerning wages, hours, and other employment practices:

  • The inspector may review documents showing the employer’s annual dollar volume of business transactions, involvement in interstate commerce, and/or work on government contracts.  Those documents are inspected to determine if the employer is a covered enterprise under the FLSA, or if the employees are protected by the FLSA because their work involves them in interstate commerce.

If you are certain that the FLSA applies to your company or its employees, you may wish to discuss with the inspector whether you can stipulate to coverage and therefore eliminate or streamline this part of the inspection.

  • Pursuant to Section 11(a), DOL investigators may review the wage hour records required by 29 C.F.R. Part 516.  Accordingly, an inspector may require your company to produce records for each of the company’s employees showing the employee’s (i) total daily or weekly straight-time earnings, and total premium pay for overtime hours; (ii) regular rate or pay for any workweek in which overtime compensation is paid; (iii) hours worked each workday and each workweek; and (iv) date of payment and the pay period covered by that payment.  An employer’s records must also show the amount and nature of each payment which is excluded from the “regular rate”, and any additions to or deductions from wages for each pay period.

Even if an inspection is the result of a specific complaint, the DOL generally will not limit its investigation to that complaint.  Rather, the DOL will likely review all personnel time records and payroll records to determine whether your company is in compliance with all aspects of the FLSA for all current and former employees on the employer's payroll for the past two to three years.

  • The DOL’s Wage and Hour Division is responsible for ensuring compliance with the employment eligibility verification recordkeeping requirements.  Thus, the DOL inspector may demand access to your company’s I-9 forms.

Refusing to produce documents requested by DOL investigators will generally do little more than antagonize the DOL.  However, employers should endeavor to avoid producing:    

  • Documents that were not specifically requested:  For example, if the inspector only requests records of wages and hours worked, don’t produce your job descriptions.  Similarly, if the investigator asks for employees’ I-9 forms, don’t turn over their entire personnel files.

There is often one exception to this rule.  Hopefully, your company has implemented a policy (i) prohibiting improper deductions and (ii) including a complaint mechanism through which employees may seek reimbursement for any improper deductions.  If followed, such a policy creates “safe harbor” that can protect the exempt status of employees who are subject to improper deductions.  That policy, therefore, should be provided to the DOL investigator.

  • Any analysis of the company’s wage hour issues prepared or requested by the company itself:  A self- audit of your company’s wage and hour practices is useful in identifying and correcting violations of the FLSA.  However, the DOL is likely to accept your conclusions about any violations identified in the audit, while giving no deference to any conclusions in your favor.  Therefore, you should not provide DOL investigators with a copy of your self-audit or similar materials.               
  • Trade secret or confidential business information:  Question the request to inspect trade secret or confidential business information, and discuss whether confidential information may be redacted from the requested records.  If you do produce such records, label them “Confidential and Proprietary.”

After locating the records to be produced to the DOL inspector, you should retain the original copies of every record produced to the DOL and track all documents produced on a Document Control Log.

In our next FAQ, we will discuss how to handle a “walkaround” inspection of the facility, in which the DOL inspector observes employee duties and looks for wage and hour violations.

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. 

District Court Rules That FLSA Cases Can Be Dismissed Based On Private Settlements, But Employers "Take Their Chances" On Enforcement.

By Michael D. Thompson

The prohibition against private settlements of FLSA claims was scrutinized again last week, when U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York held that parties could voluntarily dismiss an FLSA lawsuit without obtaining approval of the settlement agreement from the court.  Picerni v. Bilingual SEIT & Preschool Inc. 

Courts in FLSA cases have historically expressed the concern that individual waivers of FLSA rights would enable employers to use their superior bargaining power to extract individual waivers from their employees and “thwart the legislative policy [that the FLSA] was designed to effectuate.”  Brooklyn Sav. Bank v. O’Neill

Accordingly, in 1982, the Eleventh Circuit held that disputes under the FLSA could not be settled without the approval of a court or the Department of Labor.  Lynn’s Food Stores, Inc. v. United States.

However, in August 2012, we blogged about the Fifth Circuit’s decision to uphold the enforcement of a private settlement agreement resolving FLSA claims.  Martin v. Spring Break ’83 Productions LLC.  The United States Supreme Court subsequently declined to review the Fifth Circuit’s ruling and settle the split between the circuits.

Thus, when the issue arose in Picerni, the District Court considered whether a prohibition on private settlements for FLSA cases “runs afoul” of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 41.  That rule provides that a federal lawsuit, with certain exceptions, may be voluntarily dismissed by the plaintiff before the defendant files an answer, and may thereafter be dismissed through a stipulation signed by all parties.

The District Court held that FLSA claims were subject to F.R.Civ.P. 41 and therefore the parties were allowed to dismiss their own lawsuit.

However, the District Court made it clear that it was offering no opinion regarding the enforceability of the underlying settlement agreement.

The Court cited Lynn Foods for the proposition that “[m]ost courts have at least suggested in dictum, if not held, that a private FLSA settlement will not be enforced without court approval.”  The District Court further noted that “[o]ther courts have allowed private settlements if the circumstances, when examined in subsequent litigation, are found fair” or “when the court finds that a plaintiff has received in settlement 100% of the wages that he should have been paid.”  See Martinez v. Bohls Bearing Equipment Co.; Mackenzie v. Kindred Hospitals East. L.L.C. 

Thus, the District Court stated that the parties could agree to a private settlement and dismiss their FLSA lawsuit.  In settling the matter without court or DOL approval, however, the parties assumed the risk that the settlement agreement might not be enforced to bar subsequent litigation. 

Nevertheless, “if parties want to take their chances that their settlement will not be effective,” the District Court stated that it would permit them to do so.

The ruling by the District Court for the Eastern District of New York in Picerni, in conjunction with the Fifth Circuit’s decision in Martin, signal an increasing willingness to accept the private settlement of FLSA cases.  However, employers should consider whether the need to keep such an agreement private outweighs the possibility that the agreement will not be enforced to preclude further litigation of the same claims.

Wage & Hour FAQ #2: What to Do When a Wage Hour Investigation Team Arrives to Start Auditing

By Douglas Weiner

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

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

QUESTION: If a DOL team of Wage Hour Investigators arrive unannounced demanding the immediate production of payroll and tax records and access to employees for confidential interviews what should we do?

ANSWER: An unannounced arrival to investigate signals some adverse information has been submitted to the DOL concerning your wage and hour practices from either an employee complaint or referral from another law enforcement agency such as a state or federal taxing authority, or even possibly from a competitor or labor union. Effectively managing the investigation from the very beginning is essential to obtaining the best possible results. First, advise the leader of the DOL’s investigation team that you are contacting your designated wage and hour representative  to promptly arrive to provide the investigators with assistance. Courteously direct the investigation team to a comfortable but secure location such as a conference room where normal business operations will not be disrupted.

Upon arrival, our practice is to verify the credentials of the investigators, and conduct an opening conference to ascertain the purpose and focus of the investigation. Our immediate goal is to engage the DOL in a discussion to learn what they are seeking. Clarifying the specific focus of the DOL’s inquiry enhances initial communication, and allows narrowly tailored responses. For clarity, we ask the DOL to provide written requests for documents and employee interviews. Reminding the DOL the employer has the right to cooperate with the investigation in a manner that does not disrupt normal business operations, we ascertain from our client and discuss with the DOL an acceptable protocol for the conduct of the investigation. 

Upon ascertaining the specific focus of the investigation, we advise the DOL we understand what they seek, and propose continuing the investigation in a few days after the identified documents have been gathered (and internally reviewed). We invite the investigators to our firm’s conference rooms where payroll records and other documents may be inspected without returning to our client’s facilities. If the lead investigator is unreasonable in demanding immediate access to records and employees, we consider requiring the DOL to obtain a subpoena. If possible it is preferable to establish an agreed protocol to an investigation to avoid giving the DOL reason to believe you have something to hide, the loss of control over the scope of the investigation and the benefits of good faith cooperation. 

In sum, we suggest three things to do, and three things not to do:

Do:

1.      Notify your representative immediately.

2.      Allow your representative to take control of the management of the DOL’s investigation.

3.      Maintain a courteous and forthright demeanor until your representative arrives.

Do not:

1.      Ask if the investigation has been prompted by a complaint.

2.      Ask the DOL to identify a complainant.

3.      Allow immediate inspection of records or employee interviews to take place before your representative has arrived or an opening conference has been conducted.

* * * * * * * * * *

In subsequent FAQs, we will discuss in more detail a protocol to produce documents, and what information your wage-hour representative needs to respond to DOL audits, whether scheduled or surprise. 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.

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. 

Independent Contractor Misclassification Should Remain Key Area of Concern for Employers

By Frederick Dawkins and Douglas Weiner

Earlier this month, at the ABA Labor and Employment Law Conference, Solicitor of Labor M. Patricia Smith reaffirmed that investigating independent contractors as misclassified remains a top priority of the U.S. Department of Labor’s (“DOL”) enforcement initiatives.  The DOL will continue to work with other federal and state agencies, including the IRS, to share information and jointly investigate claims of worker misclassification.  The joint enforcement effort is certainly driven by, among other things, an interest in collecting unpaid tax revenue, and could result in significant liability to employers.  

In addition to potential liability resulting from strengthened federal enforcement initiatives, in previous blog posts, we have emphasized that misclassification could become the subject of the next wave of class and collective actions, particularly in view of states enacting new legislation providing for higher penalties.  Further, the re-election of President Obama may augur the re-emergence of the Employee Misclassification Prevention Act, would require employers to keep records of all workers performing labor or services for them, and to notify each worker of their classification and exemption status.  Finally, the Affordable Care Act (“ACA”) adds yet another challenge to employee misclassifications as the reclassification of workers from independent contractors to employees could push an employer over the 50 full-time employee threshold for ACA coverage. 

The expenses of  misclassification are often significant – including calculations of unpaid overtime wages, back employment taxes, income tax withholdings, unpaid workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance premiums, contributions to Social Security and Medicare, and perhaps 401K matching and pension contributions. 

In short, over the next four years of the Obama Administration, which will continue to fund the DOL’s aggressive enforcement efforts, it is undeniable that contractor misclassification investigations will continue to increase in volume and strength.  Employers are best advised to scrutinize their own independent contractor classifications in self-audits before federal and state investigators, or perhaps even worse, plaintiffs’ class action lawyers target what had been common practices.

Navigating the Murky Waters of FLSA Compliance

On September 19, 2012, several members of EBG’s Wage and Hour practice group will be presenting a briefing and webinar on FLSA compliance.  In 2012, a record number of federal wage and hour lawsuits were filed under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), demonstrating that there is no end in sight to the number of class and collective actions filed against employers. Claims continue to be filed, raising issues of misclassification of employees, alleged uncompensated "work" performed off the clock, and miscalculation of overtime pay for non-exempt workers.

In this interactive briefing and live webinar, we will discuss the recent trend in enforcement and class action lawsuits, as well as highlight several common mistakes that managers make when trying comply with the ever-changing and confusing area of the FLSA. Specifically, this briefing will teach you how to:  

  • Determine overtime eligibility
  • Determine whether an employee is exempt
  • Calculate overtime compensation correctly
  • Avoid unauthorized overtime
  • Navigate tip credits, tip pooling, and overtime calculation for wait staff
  • Understand what constitutes off-the-clock work and other traps
  • Develop strategies for avoiding additional wage and hour risks 

You can register for the complimentary briefing here.

Landmark Fifth Circuit Ruling Allows Private FLSA Settlements Without DOL/Court Supervision

By: Greta Ravitsky and Jordan Schwartz

On July 24, 2012, the Fifth Circuit became the first federal appellate court in over thirty years to enforce a private settlement of a wage and hour dispute arising under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) in Martin v. Spring Break ’83 Productions LLC.

For decades, federal courts have consistently held that FLSA wage and hour disputes may not be settled privately without approval from either the Department of Labor (“DOL”) or a federal district court.  This apparently “settled” area of law was based exclusively on the Eleventh Circuit’s decision in Lynn’s Food Stores, Inc. v. United States. As a result, courts and employment attorneys alike have cautioned employers to undertake a private resolution of an FLSA dispute at their own peril.  Until now, the Eleventh Circuit wasthe only court of appeals that had ruled on this issue. In this recent groundbreaking decision, the Fifth Circuit declined to apply Lynn’s Food Stores’ requirement of supervision and approval of private settlements, finding that a private settlement unapproved by either the DOL or federal district court can be enforceable under certain circumstances.

In Martin, the plaintiffs,several unionized lighting and rigging technicians, filed a grievance claiming they had not been paid for all hours worked during the filming of the upcoming movie “Spring Break ’83.” Upon concluding that it would be impossible to determine that the plaintiffs worked the days they alleged to have worked, the union and the employer entered into a settlement agreement with regard to the disputed hours worked, waiving the claimants’ right to file any claims with regard to those disputed hours. Before the settlement agreement was signed by union representatives, the plaintiffs filed this lawsuit against Spring Break’ 83 Productions, L.L.C. Thereafter, once the settlement agreement was executed, the plaintiffs accepted and cashed the disbursed payments. The district court granted defendants’ motion for summary judgment, enforcing the private settlement agreement. 

On appeal, the Fifth Circuit upheld the district court’s decision, holding that the payment offered to and accepted by the plaintiffs pursuant to the settlement agreement constituted an enforceable resolution of their FLSA claims, which were predicated on a bona fide dispute about the time worked. The court further noted that the settlement agreement was not a compromise of guaranteed substantive rights under the FLSA, but simply a compromise of plaintiffs’ claims; therefore, it did not contravene the Supreme Court’s restriction on union representatives’ waiver of substantive FLSA rights of their members. The Fifth Circuit found Lynn’s Food Stores to be distinguishable in that, unlike the Lynn’s Food Stores employees, the Martin plaintiffs were represented by counsel who had filed a lawsuit specifically seeking overtime pay for the plaintiffs before the settlement agreement was executed, and thus, the settlement constituted a valid release.  “The money [plaintiffs] received and accepted . . . for settlement of their bona fide dispute did not occur outside the context of a lawsuit, hence the concerns that the Eleventh Circuit expressed in Lynn’s Food Stores [were] not implicated.”

Martin’s common sense reasoning is certainly welcome news for employers who have been hesitant to enter into a private settlement agreement, given the myriad of issues inherent in obtaining approval of the settlement from the DOL or federal district court.  Certainly, the ability to settle FLSA disputes privately and confidentially should help employers avoid the potential of facing “copycat” lawsuits as a result of a settlement that has been put in the public record.  While this decision provides support for entering into an unsupervised private settlement agreement of wage and hour claims in the Fifth Circuit (Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi), particularly where the FLSA claimant is represented by counsel and an adversary process is underway, it is still advisable for employers in other jurisdictions to seek DOL or court approval for FLSA settlements in order to ensure the validity of the release of claims.

We will be sure to keep you apprised of any trends or developments arising out of this landmark decision that could pave the way for private FLSA settlements to be treated and enforced in the same manner as settlement agreements in all other employment-related disputes.

Tip Pools: Challenging DOL's Amended Rule on Employee Participation

By:  Kara M. Maciel

In April of 2011, the U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”) changed its rule defining the general characteristics of tips in an attempt to overrule the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit’s decision in Cumbie v. Woody Woo, Inc. ruling that the FLSA does not impose any restrictions on the kinds of employees who may participate in a valid tip pool where the employer does not claim the “tip credit.” 

DOL’s Recent Position on Tip Pool Participation

The DOL’s amended rule provides that tips are the property of the employees, and may not be used by the employer for any purpose other than as a tip credit or in furtherance of a valid tip pool, regardless of whether the employer actually uses the “tip credit.”  Accordingly, the DOL will now find a tip pool to be invalid if it includes employees who do not “customarily and regularly receive tips” – a requirement that the DOL generally interprets to limit tip pools to employees who provide direct service to customers.

Earlier this year, the DOL issued a memorandum stating that it would be enforcing its new rules on tip pools uniformly throughout the country.  Accordingly, employers who have established mandatory tip pools but who do not use the tip credit may find themselves faced with DOL enforcement actions if they permit employees who do not provide direct service to participate in the tip pools.  Those businesses faced with such enforcement actions may find it in their interest to challenge the validity of the DOL’s position on tip pools and argue that it conflicts with the plain language of the FLSA. 

Legal Arguments to Challenge DOL’s Interpretation on Tip Pools

For those businesses seeking to challenge the DOL’s new rule on tip pooling, the Ninth Circuit’s opinion in Woody Woo, provides useful guidance.  Specifically, the Court concluded that that the plain language of Section 203(m) of the FLSA imposes limitations on mandatory tip pools only when the employer takes a “tip credit,” and does not state freestanding requirements for all tip pools.  Further, under the U.S. Supreme Court precedent, when a federal statute addresses a particular issue, courts must apply the plain language of the statute and may not rely on a federal agency’s interpretation of the law, particularly if the agency’s interpretation conflicts with the plain language of the statute.  Based on this case law, an employer could argue that the DOL’s position on tip pools is invalid because it conflicts with the plain language of Section 203(m) of the FLSA.  Specifically, the DOL has attempted to extend to all tip pools a restriction that Congress clearly limited to tip pools involving workers for whom the employer claims the “tip credit.” 

The DOL has attempted to get around this argument by claiming that Section 203(m) of the FLSA left a “gap” in the statutory scheme regarding the treatment of tips which the DOL may fill through its interpretation of the law.  Under Woody Woo, the problem with the DOL’s argument is that it mischaracterizes Congress’ clear intent to limit the FLSA’s restrictions on mandatory tip pools to those involving employees for whom the employer claims the “tip credit” as “silence” on the issue of whether those same restrictions apply to other kinds of tip pools.  However, a legislative decision to limit a particular rule’s application to one situation does not create a “gap” for a federal agency, like the DOL, to then apply that rule to other situations.  Indeed such an expansion of the rule would conflict with the limitations on its application that were expressly established by Congress.

While a federal agency, like the DOL, can fill “gaps” left by a statute it enforces, the agency does not have the power to simply make new law.  To the extent that the FLSA is “silent” about the restrictions on mandatory tip pools in situations in which the employer does not claim the “tip credit,” that is because the statute does not address the subject matter at all.  Rather, as the Ninth Circuit noted in Woody Woo, it regulates tip pools only to the extent that they are comprised of employees for whom the employer claims the “tip credit.”  A rule or enforcement position that imposes restrictions on such tip pools does not fill a “gap” left by Congress; it is nothing more than an attempt to create new law – something the DOL cannot do.

Review Tip Pool Practices

In light of the DOL’s enforcement efforts, all hospitality employers should review their tip pooling practices to ensure compliance with both federal (and state) laws.  While the safest approach to administering a tip pool may be to comply with the DOL’s current interpretation, and restrict participation to non-management employees who provide direct service to customers, hospitality businesses that are faced with enforcement actions based on their past practices may find it useful to raise these challenges to the DOL’s position.  A successful challenge to the DOL’s enforcement position can allow hospitality businesses to avoid significant monetary penalties and preserve valid tip pool arrangements that promote cooperation and harmony among their employees.

The Supreme Court Holds That Pharmaceutical Sales Representatives Are Exempt From Overtime Requirements Under The "Outside Sales" Exemption

By: Michael Thompson

The United States Supreme Court has ruled that pharmaceutical sales representatives (PSRs) are “outside salesmen” who are not entitled to overtime under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The high court’s ruling was predicated on its finding that, in the pharmaceutical industry’s “unique regulatory environment,” the commitments obtained by PSRs equate to traditional sales. Furthermore, the Supreme Court rebuked the Department of Labor (DOL) for “unfairly surprising” the industry by filing amicus briefs arguing that PSRs were not exempt from the FLSA’s overtime requirements.

PSRs provide physicians with information about the efficacy and benefits of their company’s products, but cannot “close” sales. Rather, within the regulatory scheme governing pharmaceuticals, PSRs attempt to convince doctors to make non-binding promises to prescribe their products. For that reason, the DOL (along with plaintiffs and some federal courts) has contended that PSRs do not make “sales” and thus are not covered by the “outside sales” exemption.

The Supreme Court, however, did not defer to the position asserted by the DOL. Rather than immediately diving into the language of the FLSA, the high court first considered the issue from a practical perspective. 

The Supreme Court noted the pharmaceutical industry’s “longstanding practice” of classifying its salespeople as exempt outside salespeople. The high court then pointed out that the DOL has never brought an enforcement action challenging this classification. The majority opinion concluded that, “other than acquiescence” to this practice, “no explanation for the DOL's inaction is plausible.” Accordingly, deference to the DOL's interpretation would result in “unfair surprise” to the pharmaceutical industry.

The Supreme Court pointed out that the DOL’s position was based on its interpretation of the term “sales” as used in Code of Federal Regulations (CFR). The high court stated that the definition suggested by the DOL has shifted even since the DOL began filing amicus briefs on this issue in 2009. Thus, the DOL’s interpretation of its own regulations lacked “the hallmarks of careful consideration,” and was not entitled to controlling deference.

The Supreme Court went on to discuss its own interpretation of the term “sales.” The high court noted that the CFR defines the term to include any “sale … or other disposition” of a product or service. The Supreme Court concluded that the term “other disposition” was a “catchall phrase” that should be interpreted according to the context in which it is applied. Thus, “when an entire industry is constrained by law or regulation from selling its products in the ordinary manner, an employee who functions in all relevant respects as an outside salesman should not be excluded from that category based on technicalities.” The high court therefore concluded that, in the context of the industry, the PSRs made “sales” for purposes of the FLSA and were exempt outside salespeople under the FLSA.

Finally, offering another dose of common sense, the Supreme Court pointed out that the PSRs bore the “external indicia of salesmen" because they were hired based on sales experience, were trained to close sales, worked away from the office with minimal supervision and were compensated on an incentive basis. Furthermore, the petitioners each earned more than $70,000 per year and had flexible schedules. Thus, they were “hardly the kind of employees that the FLSA was intended to protect.”

The Supreme Court’s ruling is a huge win for the pharmaceutical industry, and a signal that both employers and the DOL should consider the practical implications of classifying a position as exempt or non-exempt under the FLSA.

The (Sort Of) Hired Help: Wage and Hour Implications of Hiring Unpaid Interns

By Amy Traub and Desiree Busching

On February 1, 2012, a former intern of the Hearst Corporations’ Harper’s Bazaar filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of herself and others similarly situated. The lawsuit alleges that the company violated the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) and applicable state laws by failing to pay minimum wage and overtime to interns. The use of unpaid interns is a widespread practice, especially in the retail, publication, and real estate industries, as well as in Hollywood. In fact, in September 2011, a similar lawsuit was filed against Fox Searchlight Pictures, Inc., claiming that the company used unpaid interns so it could make the film “Black Swan” more cheaply.  As reported in the book Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy, internships save firms roughly $600 million every year. 

Aside from the prestige that may accompany an unpaid internship for a dream employer, recession markets lead many job seekers to try to get their foot in the door by interning without pay.  Similarly, companies often view unpaid internships as a win-win: they get additional staffing without increasing their budgets and can train them for possible future employment without incurring any costs, while the interns get field experience to help them land a paying job.  As the complaint against the Hearst Corporation asserts, “[u]npaid interns are becoming the modern-day equivalent of entry-level employees.” 

But as the recent complaints against the Hearst Corporation and Fox Searchlight Pictures, Inc. demonstrate, companies utilizing the services of unpaid interns must tread carefully or they could face significant wage and hour liability, especially in light of the increased focus on unpaid interns in the legal arena.   Federal and state wage and hour laws provide multi-factor tests to determine whether an intern is actually an “intern,” or if he/she should instead be classified as an “employee,” and thus entitled to compensation.

The U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”), for example, uses the following six-factor test to determine whether such an individual qualifies as an “intern” under the FLSA:

  1. The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment;
  2. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;
  3. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff;
  4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded;
  5. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and
  6. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.

If the above factors are met, then the intern is not entitled to minimum wage or overtime under the FLSA.  However, many states have their own wage and hour laws with additional factors to consider in determining whether a worker is an “intern,” and thus not entitled to compensation, or an “employee,” who must be paid in accordance with minimum wage and overtime laws. For example, New York utilizes an 11-factor test, and California, which also previously had an 11-factor test but departed from that precedent in April 2010, now employs a 6-factor test similar to that used by the DOL.

Therefore, in order to protect themselves from wage and hour liability for use of unpaid interns, employers must be sure to check both federal and state wage and hour laws, and should speak with counsel if they are unsure if interns are being assigned appropriate work or are otherwise classified appropriately under applicable laws.

U.S. DOL And California Team Up To Crack Down On Misclassification Of Workers As Independent Contractors

By Michael Kun

Last week, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division and the California Secretary of Labor announced that they were teaming up to crack down on employers who classify workers as independent contractors.  http://www.dol.gov/opa/media/press/whd/WHD20120257.htm

The announcement that the two groups would work together on such an initiative should not come as much of a surprise to employers.  Shortly after Hilda Solis took office as the U.S. Secretary of Labor, the Wage and Hour Division announced that it would be focusing on this issue.  And California has enacted a new statute that provides additional penalties in cases where workers are found to have been misclassified as independent contractors.  Simply put, the classification of workers as independent contractors is today’s “hot issue.”

While last week’s announcement may not be a surprise, it serves as a valuable reminder to employers that contract out services that they should review those relationships closely to ensure that workers are properly classified as independent contractors – and to make careful changes to the relationship should they not be.  Why must those changes be careful?  Because in some jurisdictions, including California, changes to practices can be construed as evidence that the past practice was unlawful.  In this way, seeking to correct a problem can lead to the very lawsuit you were seeking to avoid.

Unfortunately, there is not a single, universally accepted definition of “independent contractor.”  The IRS has one definition.  The DOL has another.  Various federal and state agencies have their own definitions, and the courts have crafted even more definitions in the tort and employment contexts. What the various definitions all have in common is the element of control.  To the extent an employer controls the manner in which a worker provides services – setting hours of work, providing the tools for the work, directing the manner in which the work is performed, or otherwise controlling the worker’s activities – those could all be indicia of an employment relationship, rather than an independent contractor relationship.  Similarly, if the worker wears the employer’s uniform, wears a badge with the employer’s name on it, or provides the worker with business cards bearing the company’s name, that could also suggest that the worker in fact is an employee, not an independent contractor.  The fact that you may call the worker an “independent contractor,” or that you have a contract using that term, ultimately means little.  It’s the actual relationship that will govern in any analysis.

Employers who have independent contractors performing the same work as their employees should be particularly concerned about these issues.  And those who reacted to the recession by laying off employees, only to bring back those same persons to perform the same job as independent contractors – without benefits, payroll withholdings and workers’ compensation – are squarely within the crosshairs of federal and state agencies.  And plaintiffs’ lawyers.

But they are not the only ones who should review their relationships with persons or companies with which they contract for the provisions of services.  Employers who contract with janitorial services -- or office management services, or catering services -- should also review those relationships, particularly if they are with companies whose funding is suspect.  If the employees of those companies don’t get paid, or don’t get paid properly, it’s not unusual for them to claim that they in fact were employed not just by that company, but you.  And if you give directions to that janitor – or office services person, or server – don’t be surprised if the DOL claims that he or she is your employee. 

The Department of Labor Issues Proposed Rule Expanding FLSA Coverage to Companionship and Live-In Workers

By Dean Silverberg, Evan Spelfogel, Peter Panken, Douglas Weiner, and Donald Krueger

Reversing its prior stance, the U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”) proposes to extend the minimum wage and overtime requirements of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) to domestic workers who provide in-home care services to the elderly and infirm. See Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to Amend the Companionship and Live-In Worker Regulations. In 1974, when domestic service workers were first included in FLSA coverage, the DOL published regulations that provided an exemption for such “companions”, whether employed directly by the families of the elderly and infirm, or by a third party employer/staffing agency. Now, heeding calls from organized labor and certain members of Congress, the DOL is moving to close this “loophole.” See“Is the Department of Labor Considering a Revision to the Domestic Service Exemption for Home Health Care Aides?” .

Specifically, the proposed rule would eliminate the exemption for third-party employers, like service staffing agencies, even if the employee is jointly employed by the staffing agency and the family. The new proposal if implemented, would likely drive up costs for families who wish to care for their elderly and infirm at home.

The change would be particularly onerous for Home Health Agencies if it is deemed to be merely a correction of a “misinterpretation” and given retroactive effect. This could lead to claims of past liability for extra overtime compensation for Home Health Agencies that had relied on the Department of Labor’s prior interpretation. The DOL’s prior interpretation, exempting third party employers and staffing agencies from FLSA overtime requirements had been upheld by the United States Supreme Court in the Coke case.

The change in the federal DOL’s interpretation could also affect State Wage Hour Regulations (like New York). These provide favorable treatment for employers of employees who are exempt under the FLSA.

The public has been invited to comment on the proposed new rule. Potentially adversely affected employers may use the public comment period to point out the impropriety of the proposed change after thirty five years of consistent industry wide application of the current rule. Employers might also point out that an unintended effect of the changed rule may be to force the care of the elderly and infirm from their homes to an institutional setting, such as a nursing home or assisted care facility.

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.

Wage & Hour Division Continues Enforcement Actions against Virginia Hotels

By:  Kara M. Maciel

The Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division in Norfolk, Virginia has announced that it will be stepping up its compliance audits and enforcement efforts against area hotels. In the past few years, the DOL stated it found violations at about 60% of local hotels. According to the DOL, the agency recently made spot checks at 10 area hotels since April. This is just one part of the agency’s nationwide enforcement program and its “Plan/Prevent/Protect” initiative against the hospitality industry. Common violations assessed by the DOL include:

·         Payment of overtime. Under the FLSA, employees are entitled to overtime for any hours worked over 40 per week. For employers who have multiple hotels or facilities, when employees work at different locations in a work week, it is imperative that the employer coordinate its payroll systems to aggregate the employee’s time worked at both jobs in order to ensure that proper overtime is being paid. The DOL is finding that when an employee works at one hotel 20 hours per week, and 25 hours at another hotel, the employee is not paid overtime.   

·         Unlawful deductions. Many hospitality employers require employees to reimburse the hotel for a uniform through payroll deductions. However, an employer may not lawfully deduct from an employee’s wages for the cost of a uniform if it reduces the employee’s hourly wage below the minimum wage. Thus, for employees who are paid the minimum wage or tipped employees for whom the employer takes the tip credit, the hotel cannot deduct for a uniform if it drops the employee below the minimum wage.     

·         Working through meal breaks. Another common violation in the hospitality industry relates to workplaces in which the employer voluntarily provides a meal break. Under the FLSA, an employee, who is provided with a bona fide meal break, must be completely relieved of duty.  If an employee clocks out for lunch, and then is asked to clock back in to perform some work, the employee must be paid for the entire meal break, and not just for the time back on the clock. For many employers who automatically deduct for meal breaks or who fail to pay for the full meal period when it is interrupted, this could represent a significant liability. 

Now, more than ever, employers in the hospitality industry should be vigilant in their wage and hour compliance with federal and state law. Especially in light of the DOL’s recent roll-out of its Smartphone “app,” which allows workers to track their hours and evaluate the amount of overtime earned, workers are being armed with ample resources to bring claims of unpaid wage against the employers.