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.

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of industries, U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta announced on June 7, 2017 that the Department of Labor has withdrawn the Administrator’s Interpretations (“AIs”) on independent contractor status and joint employment, which had been issued in 2015 and 2016, respectively, during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

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

Independent Contractor Status

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

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

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

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

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

Joint Employment

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

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

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

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

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

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

Impact on Employers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Since 2000, the number of wage and hour cases filed under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) has increased by more than 450 percent, with the vast majority of those cases being filed as putative collective actions.  Under 29 U.S.C. § 216(b), employees may pursue FLSA claims on behalf of “themselves and other employees similarly situated,” provided that “[n]o employee shall be a party plaintiff to any such action unless he gives his consent in writing to become such a party and such consent is filed in the court in which such action is brought.”  Despite the prevalence of FLSA collective actions, the legal implications and consequences of being a “party plaintiff” in such an action continue to be addressed.  The Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit recently examined this issue, in an opinion that may prove useful to defendants seeking to obtain discovery from all opt-in plaintiffs in a putative collective action.

In Halle v. West Penn Allegheny Health System, Inc. et al., the named plaintiff filed a putative collective action alleging defendants violated the FLSA by failing to properly pay employees for work performed during meal breaks.  The district court dismissed the collective action allegations based on a related case that had previously been decided, and dismissed the opt-in plaintiffs’ claims without prejudice to re-filing individual actions.  After the named plaintiff subsequently settled his individual claim, three opt-in plaintiffs sought to appeal the district court’s decision.

The Third Circuit held the opt-in plaintiffs lacked the right to appeal, because they were no longer “parties” after the collective action claims were dismissed. The opt-in plaintiffs retained the right to pursue their own individual claims, but they had no right to pursue an appeal from the named plaintiff’s individual final judgment.  The court held that, “[b]y consenting to join Halle’s collective action, these opt-in plaintiffs ceded to Halle the ability to act on their behalf in all matters, including the ability to pursue this appeal.”

In reaching this decision, the Third Circuit engaged in an extensive analysis of the “fundamental question arising from the procedural history of this case: just what is a ‘collective action’ under the FLSA?” Unlike a class action brought under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23, where all putative class members are bound by the court’s ruling unless they affirmatively “opt out” of the case, “the existence of a collective action depends upon the affirmative participation of opt-in plaintiffs.”  As the Third Circuit noted, “[t]his difference means that every plaintiff who opts in to a collective action has party status, whereas unnamed class members in Rule 23 class actions do not,” prompting “the as-yet unanswered question of what ‘party status’ means in a collective action.”

The court’s analysis of this issue, while tangential to Halle’s holding, highlights the tension inherent in the language of FLSA § 216(b), which, according to the Third Circuit, “raises more questions than it provides answers.  While the first sentence [of § 216(b)] sounds in representational terms (to proceed ‘in behalf of’ others ‘similarly situated’), the second sentence refers to those who file consents as ‘party plaintiffs,’ seeming to imply that all who affirmatively choose to become participants have an equal, individual stake in the proceeding.”  This tension is particularly significant with regard to defendants’ discovery rights in a collective action.

Under Rule 33 and Rule 34 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, in the absence of any court-imposed limits, a party may serve interrogatories and document requests “on any other party.”  Based on this language, and FLSA § 216(b)’s designation of individuals who opt in to a collective action as “party plaintiffs,” arguably a defendant in a collective action should be entitled to serve discovery requests on each individual who opts in to the litigation, unless the court orders otherwise.  Despite this fact, the Third Circuit noted that, “[f]requently,” discovery in collective actions “focuses on the named plaintiffs and a subset of the collective group,” a limitation that may hinder defendants’ ability to present individualized defenses that may not be applicable to all opt-in plaintiffs.

While the Third Circuit did not fully resolve the question of what it means to be a “party plaintiff,” two aspects of the Halle decision may prove helpful to defendants seeking to assert their right to obtain discovery from all opt-in plaintiffs in a collective action.  First, as noted above, the Third Circuit emphasized that each opt-in plaintiff “has party status.”  This language, when read in conjunction with the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure regarding the scope of discovery, should support defendants’ right to seek discovery from “any other party,” including all opt-in plaintiffs.

Second, in holding that the opt-in plaintiffs had no right to appeal a final judgment involving the named plaintiff, the court emphasized the importance of “the language of their opt-in consent forms, which handed over all litigation authority to named plaintiff.” The Third Circuit noted that courts often rely on the language of the opt-in consent form “to determine which rights opt-in plaintiffs delegated to the named plaintiffs.”  Based on this guidance, defendants may wish to propose including language in the opt-in consent form stating that individuals who join the collective action may be required to provide documents and information, sit for depositions, and/or testify at trial.  Such language may help demonstrate that the opt-in plaintiffs were meant to be treated as active parties to the litigation, with the same rights and obligations as named plaintiffs.

While a court may ultimately exercise its discretion to impose limits on the scope of discovery, particularly in collective actions with a large putative class, the Third Circuit’s analysis in Halle may prove useful to defendants seeking support for their argument that they should be entitled to obtain discovery from each opt-in plaintiff.

Our colleague Adriana S. Kosovych, associate at Epstein Becker Green, has a post on the Hospitality Employment and Labor blog that will be of interest to many of our readers: “Chipotle Exploits Wide Variation Among Plaintiffs to Defeat Class and Collective Certification.

Following is an excerpt:

A New York federal court recently declined to certify under Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (“Rule 23”) six classes of salaried “apprentices” at Chipotle restaurants asserting claims for overtime pay under New York Labor Law (“NYLL”) and parallel state laws in Missouri, Colorado, Washington, Illinois, and North Carolina, on the theory that they were misclassified as exempt executives in Scott et al. v. Chipotle Mexican Grill, Inc. et al., Case No. 12-CV-8333 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 29, 2017).  The Court also granted Chipotle’s motion to decertify the plaintiffs’ conditionally certified collective action under Section 216(b) of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), resulting in the dismissal without prejudice of the claims of 516 plaintiffs who had opted in since June 2013.

The putative class and collective action of apprentices working in certain of Chipotle’s 2,000-plus restaurants nationwide were provisionally employed while being trained to become general managers of new Chipotle locations. The Scott action challenged Chipotle’s blanket exempt classification of the apprentice position, claiming that the duties plaintiffs actually performed during the majority of their working time were not managerial, and therefore, as non-exempt employees they were entitled to receive overtime pay. …

Read the full post here.

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

Tipped Employees & the FLSA

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

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

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

The Plaintiff’s Claims

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is the Impact of an Improper Tip Credit?

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

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

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

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

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.

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.”