Wage and Hour Policies

Not all new laws go into effect on the first of the year. On July 1, 2017, new minimum wage laws went into effect in several locales in California. Specifically:

  • Emeryville: $15.20/hour for businesses with 56 or more employees; $14/hour for businesses with 55 or fewer employees.
  • City of Los Angeles: $12/hour for employers with 26 or more employees; $10.50 an hour for employers with 25 or fewer employees.
  • Los Angeles County (unincorporated areas only): $12/hour for employers with 26 or more employees; $10.50 an hour for employers with 25 or fewer employees.
  • Malibu: $12/hour for employers with 26 or more employees; $10.50 an hour for employers with 25 or fewer employees.
  • Milpitas: $11 an hour.
  • Pasadena: $12/hour for employers with 26 or more employees; $10.50 an hour for employers with 25 or fewer employees.
  • San Francisco: $14 an hour.
  • San Jose: $12 an hour.
  • San Leandro: $12 an hour.
  • Santa Monica: $12/hour for employers with 26 or more employees; $10.50 an hour for employers with 25 or fewer employees.

Of course, employers with employees in these locales will want to ensure that they are complying with these new minimum wage laws.

A Maine dairy company has received a potentially expensive grammar lesson from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, which held on March 13, 2017, that the company’s delivery drivers may be eligible for up to $10 million in overtime pay, because the lack of a comma in the statute regarding exemptions from the state’s wage and hour law rendered the scope of the exemption ambiguous.

Grammarians have long disputed whether writers should include a comma before the final item in a list—the so-called “serial” or “Oxford” comma.  Opponents of the serial comma consider it superfluous.  Supporters argue that the serial comma is necessary to eliminate potential ambiguity, as in the example, “I’d like to thank my parents, Ayn Rand and God.”  Are Ayn Rand and God the writer’s parents, or are they being thanked in addition to his or her parents?  Without the serial comma, it is impossible to know.

Similarly, this case, O’Connor v. Oakhurst Dairy, arose “[f]or want of a comma” in the Maine law exempting from overtime compensation employees involved in the “canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of” various perishable goods.  Without the controversial serial comma after “shipment,” the court found it unclear whether the exemption was meant to apply to one category of employees (i.e., those who pack goods, whether for shipment or for distribution) or two (i.e., those who pack goods for shipment, and those who distribute the goods).  Because the plaintiff drivers admittedly distributed goods, but claimed they did not pack goods or engage in any of the other activities specified in the exemption, their case could only proceed if the First Circuit reversed the district court’s ruling that the exemption encompassed both packers and distributors.

In an opinion that should appeal to grammar aficionados everywhere, the First Circuit extensively analyzed the language of the statute in light of “certain linguistic conventions,” or “canons,” including: (i) the rule against surplusage, which states that no word in a statute should be treated as unnecessary; (ii) the convention of using a conjunction before the last item on a list; (iii) the parallel usage convention, which requires words performing the same grammatical function to be presented in the same form; and (iv) the use of the serial comma itself, which the Maine Legislative Drafting Manual generally disfavors, except when its omission may cause the sort of ambiguity presented here.  After engaging in this analysis, and proving unable to determine the law’s clear meaning from the statutory text or its legislative history, the court reversed the district court and held it must “adopt the delivery drivers’ reading of the ambiguous phrase . . . , as that reading furthers the broad remedial purpose of the overtime law, which is to provide overtime pay protection to employees.”

While many commentators have viewed this opinion as an ode to, in the court’s words, “the clarifying virtues of serial commas,” ultimately that is a mere subset of the three broader lessons presented by this case, principles that should prove helpful to anyone who communicates via the written word—that is, all of us.

Lesson One — Say What You Mean

Given the context of this case, the first lesson presented by the court’s analysis was likely aimed primarily at the Maine Legislature, which drafted the ambiguous statute at issue. However, it is advice that all writers would be wise to follow—avoid ambiguity.  Whether drafting a statute, a brief, an employment policy, an email, or a Tweet, use language and punctuation (including the serial comma, where necessary) deliberately, to ensure that you actually write what you intend to say.  Review the grammar rules you may have ignored since middle school, and revise your writing as frequently as necessary, to guard against any accidental ambiguities like the one in the Maine wage and hour law.  Especially for attorneys, words are our primary weapons, and it is crucial that we wield them wisely.

Lesson Two — Remember Your Goal

The second piece of advice that arises from this case is somewhat related to the first—always keep the underlying purpose of a piece of writing in mind. Much as courts seek to effectuate the legislative intent of a statute, parties to a dispute should focus on what, specifically, they are trying to accomplish.  The delivery drivers in this case did not win because of a missing comma; they won because the extra compensation they sought was consistent with the broad remedial purpose of Maine’s wage and hour law.  As an advocate, you will be more likely to succeed if you can find a way to align the outcome you or your clients seek with the societal or legislative purpose the court is seeking to advance.

Lesson Three — Be Consistent (a.k.a., Don’t Be Your Own Worst Enemy)

The third lesson drawn from this case, despite being relegated to a seemingly insignificant footnote, may be the most important—make sure all of your messaging is consistent. In this case, the dairy company argued that the statutory exemption should be read as applying to both employees involved in “packing [goods] for shipment” and employees involved in “distribution” of the goods, because “shipment” and “distribution” are synonyms, and unless “packing for shipment” and “distribution” constituted two separate exempt activities, the statute would be redundant.  The court may have been more receptive to this argument, if it hadn’t noticed that the company’s “own internal organization chart seems to treat [shipment and distribution] as if they are separate activities,” significantly undercutting the company’s argument that the two terms were synonymous and redundant.  The company probably never considered the fact that its own organizational chart could be used against it, but any such inconsistency in a party’s messaging, even in a seemingly unrelated context like an org chart, may ultimately prove fatal to a contradictory legal claim the party seeks to assert sometime in the future.  Accordingly, especially for corporate entities, it is crucial to keep a single consistent and coherent viewpoint in mind when drafting any sort of company messaging, to prevent any inconsistencies from being used against the company at a later date.

Conclusion — It’s Not About the Comma

Contrary to the extensive media coverage of the “comma case,” this case offers a far broader lesson than “always use a serial comma.” Instead, the First Circuit’s opinion presents three fundamental principles that should apply in every context where the written word may prove determinative.  In essence, the opinion is a dissertation on the virtues of clarity in writing—a lesson that may cost Oakhurst Dairy up to $10 million, but which has been made available to the rest of us, free of charge.

Michael D. Thompson
Michael D. Thompson

In Gonzalez v. Allied Concrete Industries, Inc., thirteen construction laborers filed suit in the Eastern District of New York.  The plaintiffs claimed they worked in excess of forty hours per week, but were not paid overtime in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act and the New York Labor Law.

To obtain information regarding the plaintiffs’ activities during hours they claimed to have been working, the defendants sought an order compelling discovery of their ATM and cell phone records.

ATM Receipts

The defendants asserted that records of the plaintiffs’ ATM transactions were likely to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence because they could reveal each plaintiff’s “whereabouts and activities during hours they claim to have been working.” The defendants relied in large part on Caputi v. Topper Realty Corp., a 2015 case decided by the same court.  In Caputi, a plaintiff asserting overtime claims was ordered to produce “a sampling of records of her ATM transactions” for the time period in question.

In denying the defendants’ motion, the Court acknowledged the ruling in Caputi.  However, the Court concluded that the discovery of ATM records was allowed in that case because the Caputi defendants stated that witnesses would testify that the plaintiff attended prolonged lunches during the workweek and withdrew cash from ATMs for that purpose.

Conversely, in Allied Concrete, the Court concluded that the defendants had not shown any “evidentiary nexus between the en masse discovery sought and a good faith basis to believe that such discovery material is both relevant and proportional to the needs of the case.”

Cell Phone Records

The defendants in Allied Concrete also sought the release of the plaintiffs’ cell phone records in order to determine whether the plaintiffs “engaged in personal activities such as non-work related telephone calls, extended telephone calls, [and] frequent text messaging” during times they claimed to have been working.

The defendants cited to Caputi and to Perry v. The Margolin & Weinreb Law Group, another Eastern District of New York case from 2015.  In both cases, the plaintiffs asserting wage hour claims were ordered to produce cell phone records based on testimony that they had made personal telephone calls during the workday.  Allied Concrete had not obtained any such testimony.  Accordingly, the Court stated that the defendants’ speculation that the cell phone records might contain relevant evidence did not warrant a “wholesale intrusion into the private affairs” of the plaintiffs.

Employers, therefore, should be aware that electronic evidence of an employee’s activities may be discoverable in FLSA cases – provided that there is a sufficient basis for seeking the discovery.

Evan J. Spelfogel
Evan J. Spelfogel

On March 31, 2016, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law a bill increasing the statewide minimum wage on a phased in basis over the next five years, to $15.00 per hour in some, but not all New York counties (“Minimum Wage Law”).  This is in addition to a bill enacted on December 31, 2015, that increased the subminimum wage for tipped employees in the hospitality industry from $5 to $7.50 per hour.

The Minimum Wage Law now provides for a tiered increase from the current statewide rate of $9.00, to $11, $13, and $15 per hour effective December 31, 2016, 2017, and 2018 respectively, for work performed in New York City for employers with more than 10 employees.  A slightly longer phase in period, running to December 2019, is provided for New York City employers with 10 or fewer employees and for Westchester, Nassau, and Suffolk counties. For these counties, the minimum wage is set to increase to $10.00 per hour by December 31, 2016, and then $1 every year until reaching $15.00 per hour on December 31, 2021.

For work performed in other counties throughout NY State, the minimum wage increase will be more gradual, increasing to $9.70 per hour on December 31, 2016, followed by a 70 cent increase every year until December 31, 2020, when the minimum wage will reach $12.50 per hour.  After December 31, 2020, the minimum wage in these counties will continue to increase on an indexed schedule to be set by the Director of the Division of Budget (“DOB”) in consultation with the Commissioner of Labor.

Kevin Sullivan
Kevin Sullivan

On March 31, 2016, the California legislature passed a bill that will gradually increase the state minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2022. Governor Jerry Brown is expected to sign the bill on April 4, 2016. This increase will impact employers statewide. Not only will it affect the wages of many non-exempt employees, but it will also result in an increase in the minimum salary paid to employees who qualify for most overtime exemptions.

The bill calls for the minimum wage to increase to $10.50 per hour effective January 1, 2017, $11.00 per hour effective January 1, 2018, and then an additional one dollar per hour each year until it reaches $15 per hour effective January 1, 2022. (For employers with 25 or fewer employees, each of the minimum wage increases would start a year later such that $15 per hour minimum would not go into effect until January 2023.)

Importantly, once the minimum wage reaches $15 per hour, it may then be further increased annually by up to 3.5% to account for inflation based upon the national consumer price index.

Built into the bill is an “off-ramp” provision that allows the governor to pause any scheduled increase for one year if either economy or budget conditions are met. Once the $15 per hour minimum wage has been reached, the “off-ramp” provision expires.

While this increase will certainly have an impact on labor budgets for employers with hourly, non-exempt employees, the impact on employers with salaried, exempt employees cannot be ignored. 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 $41,600 to $43,680 effective January 1, 2017. It will then increase to $45,760 effective January 1, 2018, $49,920 effective January 1, 2019, $54,080 effective January 1, 2020, $58,240 effective January 1, 2021, and $62,400 effective January 1, 2022.

Betty WhiteIt is often said that no employer is immune from a wage-hour lawsuit. That no matter how diligent an employer is about complying with wage-hour laws, there is nothing to prevent an employee from alleging that it did not comply in full with the law, leaving it to the attorneys and the court to sort things out. Perhaps the best evidence that no employer is immune from a wage-hour lawsuit came on Thursday, March 17, 2016. That is the date that history will always reflect that a wage-hour lawsuit was filed against Betty White.

Yes, that Betty White. Ninety-four year old Betty White. Sue Ann Nivens from The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Rose from The Golden Girls. Betty White from The Betty White Show, and hundreds of talk shows, game shows, and commercials. One of the most recognizable faces of television for the past 50 years.  And one of the most universally adored. That Betty White. Sued. For wage-hour violations.

On March 17, 2016, a former domestic named Anita Maynard filed suit against Betty White in state court in Los Angeles, alleging that she was not paid minimum wages or overtime, was not permitted to take meal and rest periods in compliance with the law, and was not paid all wages due to her when her employment ended. (The lawsuit is known as Anita Maynard v. Betty White Ludden.  Some will recall Ms. White’s late husband, Allen Ludden, who hosted Password in the 1960s and 1970s before succumbing to cancer.) Now, we have no idea whether the claims have any merit.  And, like many single-plaintiff wage suits, it may well be dismissed or settled quietly without anyone knowing much. But we do know this: if Betty White can be sued for wage-hour laws, then any employer can be.

And that is just another reminder of how important it is for employers to try to ensure compliance with wage-hour laws.

Wage and Hour Division’s Latest Newsletter Confirms Its Aggressive Approach
Infographic by DOL Wage and Hour Division.

The Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division, which is charged with enforcing federal wage laws, has just issued its latest newsletter.

Included in the newsletter is the Division’s presentation of a variety of statistics relating to its efforts.

Among the statistics reported by the Division:

  • It has assisted more than 1.7 million workers since 2009.
  • It has recovered approximately $1.6 billion for workers since 2009.
  • It recovered more than $246 million in back wages in 2015 alone for more than 240,000 workers.
  • In 2015, the Division found violations in 79% of its investigations.

What do these statistics mean for employers?

They mean that the Wage and Hour Division was not just talking when it said it would aggressively investigate and pursue wage-hour issues, including the misclassification of workers as independent contractors and the failure to pay employees for work performed off-the-clock.

Those statistics alone should serve as a reminder to employers to review their policies and practices to try to ensure compliance with wage-hour laws.  No employer wants to be part of these statistics next year.

shutterstock_31365553More than a few media sources have reported on the March 10, 2016 wage-hour “victory” by a class of Taco Bell employees on meal period claims in a jury trial in the Eastern District of California.  A closer review of the case and the jury verdict suggests that those employees may not be celebrating after all — and that Taco Bell may well be the victor in the case.

The trial involved claims that Taco Bell had not complied with California’s meal and rest period laws. The employees sought meal and rest period premiums and associated penalties for a class of employees that reportedly exceeded 134,000 members.

Now, it is certainly true that, at trial, a class of employees prevailed on a claim that Taco Bell did not comply with California meal period laws for a limited period of time (2003-2007), when Taco Bell reportedly provided employees with 30 minutes of pay when they were not able to take meal periods, rather than the full one-hour of pay provided for by California law.

And it is certainly true that the class of employees was awarded approximately $496,000 on that claim.

But as it appears that there were more than 134,000 employees in the class, a few punches on the calculator show that, on average, each employee would receive approximately $3.70.

Perhaps more importantly, while it may have lost on that one claim, Taco Bell prevailed on the remaining claims in the case where the class alleged that Taco Bell had violated both meal and rest period laws as to its employees, including a claim that Taco Bell had not provided meal periods in compliance with the law for a period of approximately 10 years (2003-2013).   That claim alone likely would have resulted in a jury verdict of several million dollars had the employees prevailed on it.  But they did not.  Taco Bell did.

In other words, in a case where the employees were presumably asking a jury for several millions of dollars for alleged violations dating back to George W. Bush’s first term as President, they were only awarded approximately $496,000.

In the grand scheme of a class action, where employers must constantly weight the costs of litigation with the benefits of settlement, that is a small sum.  It is likely an amount Taco Bell gladly would have paid to settle the case.  In fact, one would have to speculate that $496,000 is likely much less than the amount Taco Bell actually offered the employees and their attorneys to resolve the case in mediation or otherwise.

So while the media may be reporting that this is a “victory” for Taco Bell employees, those employees, who will receive $3.70 each on average, may not see it that way.  Instead, they may well be questioning the lead plaintiffs and their attorneys about how much Taco Bell offered at the settlement table, if it was rejected, and why.

(And before anyone responds, “But the employees’ attorneys will get their attorneys fees,” we’re talking about the recovery for the employees themselves. If the real victors in the case are the attorneys, that’s another issue, isn’t it?)

Oregon Creates Three New Minimum Wage Rates

On March 1, 2016, Oregon Governor Kate Brown signed a law raising the state’s minimum wage. The law is an unusual one, and it will create challenges for many employers with employees in the state, particularly those with operations or employees in multiple counties.

The first increase to the state’s minimum wage will take effect on July 1, 2016, with a new increase scheduled to take effect each July thereafter. The law provides a schedule of annual increases through 2022. Beginning in 2023, the minimum wage will be adjusted annually to account for inflation.

Oregon Minimum Wage Schedule

Starting July 1, 2016, the Oregon minimum wage will be $9.75 per hour in most—but not all—of the state. The minimum wage in 18 enumerated “nonurban counties” will be $9.50 per hour.

Oregon Nonurban Minimum Wage Counties

Beginning on July 1, 2017, Oregon will have three distinct minimum wage rates: $11.25 per hour in the Portland metropolitan area; $10.00 per hour in nonurban counties; and $10.25 in the remainder of the state. Annual statutory increases will continue through July 1, 2022 when the minimum wage rates will be: $14.75 per hour in the Portland metropolitan area; $12.50 per hour in nonurban counties; and $13.50 in the remainder of the state. The rates will be adjusted each July to reflect changes in the Consumer Price Index.

Oregon Minimum Wage Counties

Although the law provides three detailed schedules of the minimum wage rates for the next seven years, it provides little guidance to employers looking to determine which of the three rates will apply when they have operations in several geographic areas or where an individual works in several different areas. While the statute provides that the applicable minimum wage rate is determined based on the county where “the employer is located,” it is not unusual for an employer to have locations in multiple counties. And it also is not unusual for employees, such as home health aides or delivery drivers, to perform work in multiple geographic areas.

The Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries is expected to provide guidance on these and other issues.

Download Epstein Becker Green’s complimentary app, Wage & Hour Guide for Employers, for iPhone, iPad, Android, and BlackBerry devices.

 

Michael Kun, co-editor of this blog, has a post on the Hospitality Labor and Employment Law Blog that will be of interest to many of our readers: “Ninth Circuit Approves DOL Rule Prohibiting ‘Tip Pooling’ for Kitchen Employees Even Where No ‘Tip Credit’ Is Taken.”

Following is an excerpt:

The Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) permits employers to use “tip credits” to satisfy minimum wage obligations to tipped employees.  Some employers use those “tip credits” to satisfy the minimum wage obligations; some do not.  (And in some states, like California, they cannot do so without running afoul of state minimum wage laws.) …

On February 23, 2016, in Oregon Restaurant & Lodging Assoc. v. Perez, No. 13-25765 (9th Cir. Feb. 23, 2016), a divided Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals … [held] that the DOL in fact has the authority to regulate the “tip pooling” practices of employers even when they do not take tip credits — including prohibiting employers from including kitchen employees in “tip pools.” While confirming that the FLSA permits the use of “tip credits” to fulfill minimum wage requirements, the Court concluded that the DOL was acting within its authority in concluding that employers that establish “tip pools” may only do so when the persons who are included are persons who normally receive tips – and that, as kitchen staff do not normally receive tips, they cannot be included in “tip pools.”

The decision not only appears to be inconsistent with the Ninth Circuit’s own Cumbie decision, but with other courts that have reviewed this same issue. …

Read the full post here.