In many industries, sales are subject to ebbs and flows.  Sometimes the fish are biting; sometimes they aren’t.

A common device that employers with commissioned salespeople use to take the edge off of the slow weeks and to ensure compliance with minimum wage and overtime laws is the recoverable draw.  Under such a system, an employee who earns below a certain amount in commissions for a given period of time, often a week, receives an advance of as-yet unearned commissions to bring the employee’s earnings for the period up to a specified level.  Then in the next period, the employees’ commissions pay off the draw balance before the employee receives further payouts of commissions.  Occasionally, employees challenge these recoverable draw pay systems.

In Stein v. hhgregg, Inc., the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit considered one such draw system.  The employer, a retail seller of appliances, furniture, and electronics at more than 220 stores nationwide, paid its salespeople entirely in commissions.  In weeks where an employee worked 40 or fewer hours and did not earn commissions sufficient to cover minimum wage for the week, the employee would receive a draw against future commissions sufficient to bring the employee’s earnings for the week up to minimum wage.  In weeks where the employee worked more than 40 hours, and did not earn sufficient commissions to cover one and a half times the minimum wage, the employee would receive a draw against future commissions sufficient to bring the employee’s earnings for the week up to one and a half times the minimum wage.  The purpose of this pay structure was, among other things, to achieve compliance with the overtime exemption in section 7(i) of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) for certain commissioned employees of a retail or service establishment.  The company’s policy also provided that upon termination of employment, an employee will immediately pay the company any unpaid draw balance.

Two employees of a store in Ohio brought a putative nationwide collective action under the FLSA, as well as a putative state law class action asserting unjust enrichment with respect to the company’s more than twenty-five locations in Ohio.  They alleged failure to pay the minimum wage or overtime based on the theory that offsetting draw payments against future commissions amounted to an improper kick-back of wages to the employer.  They also claimed that the employer did not pay for certain non-sales activities and encouraged employees to work off the clock.  The complaint did not specifically allege that the two named plaintiffs worked off the clock or that the one plaintiff who was a former employee had to repay a draw balance when his employment ended.  The district court granted the company’s motion to dismiss, concluding that there was no FLSA violation and declining to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the state-law claims.

On appeal, after reviewing extensive interpretive guidance from the U.S. Department of Labor, the Sixth Circuit rejected the plaintiffs’ central theory that a recoverable draw amounts to an impermissible wage kick-back.  To the court, the key consideration is that under the pay system at issue, “deductions will be made from wages not delivered, that is, from future earned commissions that have not yet been paid.”  Because the company does not recover wages already “delivered to the employee,” the court “h[e]ld that this practice does not violate the ‘free and clear’ regulation.  See 29 C.F.R. § 531.35 (emphasis added).”  (Op. at 9-10.)

The divided panel reversed, however, in certain other respects.

First, the court determined that the FLSA section 7(i) overtime exemption does not apply because although the company’s pay plan provides for a minimum rate equal to one and one half times the minimum wage for any week where an employee works more than 40 hours, the exemption technically requires, among other things, a rate that is more than one and a half times the minimum wage.  (Note: federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, and 1.5 times that rate is $10.875 per hour.  Strictly speaking, a wage of $10.875 does not satisfy this aspect of the exemption, whereas $10.88 per hour does.  Perhaps on remand it will turn out that the company actually paid $10.88 per hour rather than $10.875, as it would be very unusual for an employer to use a pay rate that does not round up to the nearest cent.)

Second, the panel majority held that the company’s policy of requiring repayment of a draw balance upon termination of employment violated the FLSA as an improper kick-back.  This part of the decision is interesting because the majority parted ways with the dissenting judge and the district court over the issue of policy versus practice.  The complaint did not suggest that either named plaintiff actually paid back any draw balance, and at oral argument it became clear that the company never enforced that policy and, in fact, had eliminated the repayment policy during the litigation.  The dissenting judge, like the district court before him, believed that because the company had never applied the policy to the named plaintiffs, the policy would not support a claim for relief.  The majority, however, took a more expansive approach to the matter.  “Incurring a debt, or even believing that one has incurred a debt, has far-reaching practical implications for individuals.  It could affect the way an individual saves money or applies for loans.  An individual might feel obligated to report that debt when filling out job applications, credit applications, court documents, or other financial records that require self-reporting of existing liabilities.”  (Op. at 15.)  In short, the court arguably opened the door to allowing plaintiffs to bring FLSA claims even where they have suffered no injury cognizable under the FLSA, so long as the policy they challenge could potentially cause them other types of consequential damages beyond those covered by the FLSA.  This aspect of the ruling appears to be a first of its kind in FLSA jurisprudence.

Third, the panel majority concluded that the plaintiffs adequately alleged minimum wage and overtime violations based on the assertions regarding the company’s knowledge and encouragement of working off the clock.  Although the dissent pointed out that the complaint contained no allegation that either named plaintiff actually suffered a minimum wage or overtime violation as a result of working off the clock, the majority focused on the alleged practice, rather than its specific application to the named plaintiffs, determining that “Plaintiffs have alleged sufficient facts to support a claim that this practice violates the minimum wage and overtime requirements of the FLSA.”  (Op. at 19.)

This decision provides several lessons for employers:

  • Generally speaking, the FLSA allows for the concept of a recoverable draw against commissions.  Recovering a draw against future commissions is not automatically an impermissible wage kick-back.  (Note that there may be certain restrictions under state law, and under some conditions a recoverable draw may violate the FLSA.)
  • When relying on the FLSA section 7(i) exemption, ensure that the policy is clear that an employee will receive more than one and a half times the federal minimum wage for any workweek in which the employer will claim the exemption.
  • Closely review any policies regarding recovery of draw payments (or, indeed, any other types of payments) upon an employee’s termination.  Such policies are often subject to challenge, and they can serve as a trigger for claims by demanding a payment right at the time when a departing employee may cease to have an interest in maintaining a positive relationship with an employer.
  • Be very careful about policies or practices that may arguably encourage employees to work off the clock.  Employers should have clear written policies prohibiting employees from working off the clock, and employees and supervisors should receive periodic training on those policies.

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

As wage and hour practitioners know:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overtime Clock Faces - Abstract PhotoWe have written more than a few times here about the new Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) overtime rules that were scheduled to go into effect on December 1, 2016, dramatically increasing the salary threshold for white collar exemptions.

Most recently, we wrote about the November 22, 2016 nationwide injunction entered by a federal judge in Texas, enjoining the Department of Labor (“DOL”) from enforcing those new rules on the grounds that the DOL had overstepped its bounds.

The injunction threw the new rules into a state of limbo, as employers and employees alike were left to wonder whether the DOL would appeal that decision to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Under normal circumstances, one would assume that the DOL would appeal that ruling.  However, normal circumstances do not exist.  With a new President set to be sworn in shortly, and with a new Secretary of Labor presumably to be appointed thereafter, there was much speculation about what the DOL would do.

The question has now been answered – at least for the short term.

On December 1, 2016 – perhaps not coincidentally, the same day the rules were to go into effect – the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) filed an appeal on behalf of the DOL. 

The DOL has issued a brief statement about its position, which may be found here: https://www.dol.gov/whd/overtime/final2016/litigation.htm

In short, it is the DOL’s position that the salary basis test has been part of the FLSA overtime rules since 1940, and that the new rules were the result of a comprehensive rule-making process that complied with the law.

While the notice of appeal has been filed, it remains difficult to predict whether or how long the appeal will in fact proceed.  Unless the President-elect should indicate otherwise, it is certainly possible that the new Secretary of Labor will pull the plug on the appeal shortly after he or she assumes the role.

We will continue to monitor the case and share any significant developments. In the meantime, it would appear safe to say that employers should feel comfortable that they need not comply with the new rules, and that those who already implemented or announced changes prior to the injunction should seek guidance on how best to proceed if they intend to rescind those changes.

Abstract Image - Business TimeAs we recently reported on our Wage & Hour Defense Blog, on November 22, 2016, a federal judge in the Eastern District of Texas issued a nationwide preliminary injunction enjoining the U.S. Department of Labor from implementing its new overtime exemption rule that would have more than doubled the current salary threshold for the executive, administrative, and professional exemptions and was scheduled to take effect on December 1, 2016. To the extent employers have not already increased exempt employees’ salaries or converted them to non-exempt positions, the injunction will, at the very least, appear to allow many employers to postpone those changes—but likely not in the case of employees who work in New York State.

On October 19, 2016, the New York State Department of Labor (“NYSDOL”) announced proposed amendments to the state’s minimum wage orders (“Proposed Amendments”) to increase the salary basis threshold for executive and administrative employees under the state’s wage and hour laws (New York does not impose a minimum salary threshold for exempt “professional” employees).  The current salary threshold for the administrative and executive exemptions under New York law is $675 per week ($35,100 annually) throughout the state.  The NYSDOL has proposed the following increases to New York’s salary threshold for the executive and administrative exemptions:

Employers in New York City

Large employers (11 or more employees)

—$825.00 per week ($42,900 annually) on and after 12/31/16

—$975.00 per week ($50,700 annually) on and after 12/31/17

—$1,125.00 per week ($58,500 annually) on and after 12/31/18

Small employers (10 or fewer employees)

—$787.50 per week ($40,950 annually) on and after 12/31/16

—$900.00 per week ($46,800 annually) on and after 12/31/17

—$1,012.50 per week ($52,650 annually) on and after 12/31/18

—$1,125.00 per week ($58,500 annually) on and after 12/31/19

Employers in Nassau, Suffolk, and Westchester Counties

—$750.00 per week ($39,000 annually) on and after 12/31/16

—$825.00 per week ($42,900 annually) on and after 12/31/17

—$900.00 per week ($46,800 annually) on and after 12/31/18

—$975.00 per week ($50,700 annually) on and after 12/31/19

—$1,050.00 per week ($54,600 annually) on and after 12/31/20

—$1,125.00 per week ($58,500 annually) on and after 12/31/21

Employers Outside of New York City, Nassau, Suffolk, and Westchester Counties

—$727.50 per week ($37,830 annually) on and after 12/31/16

—$780.00 per week ($40,560 annually) on and after 12/31/17

—$832.00 per week ($43,264  annually) on and after 12/31/18

—$885.00 per week ($46,020 annually) on and after 12/31/19

—$937.50 per week ($48,750 annually) on and after 12/31/20

The publication of the NYSDOL’s Proposed Amendments opened a 45-day public comment period. During this period, the NYSDOL will accept comments on the Proposed Amendments until December 3, 2016. The NYSDOL will then review any comments and publish new wage orders. The Proposed Amendments, if finalized by the NYSDOL, would become effective on December 31, 2016.

While New York employers may not, at this moment, be required to increase exempt employees’ salaries to $913 under the currently enjoined federal rule, they would still be required to comply with NYSDOL regulations, which, in all likelihood, will result in an increase to the current $675 weekly salary threshold for exempt executive and administrative employees.  Employers should also keep in mind that the salary threshold for the executive and administrative exemptions under the NYSDOL’s regulations will, if the Proposed Amendments are adopted, increase on December 31 of each year until, at least for many counties, the threshold reaches $1,125 per week.  Employers should consider these systematic annual salary increases when deciding by how much to increase exempt executive and administrative employees’ salaries this year, and whether surpassing this year’s proposed minimum threshold is economically and operationally prudent. Employers in other states should also examine whether there are similar state law requirements that will require changes such as these.

Most of us don’t think of window washers on high rise buildings as employees who qualify for an exemption from overtime pay.  But under an unusual set Clear blue skyof facts, this is precisely what the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals held in Alvarado v. Corporate Cleaning Services, Inc., 782 F.3d 365 (7th Cir. 2015).

Corporate Cleaning Services (“CCS”) provided window washing services to high rise buildings.  When it received an order for a window washing job, it calculated a number of points, based on the job’s complexity and the number of hours estimated to complete it, to determine the price to charge the customer.  It also used that number of points to determine employees’ pay.  Generally, each window washer received the same number of points, and those points were multiplied by a rate specified in the collective bargaining agreement with the union to determine the amount each employee was paid for the job.  Employees worked primarily in the warmer months and were paid $40,000 to $60,000 per year.

Although the company called this compensation system a “piece rate” system, the Court found the company’s label was not determinative, and the employees actually were paid on a commission basis.  Under 29 U.S.C. §207(i), certain commission paid employees need not be paid time and one half for hours worked over 40 in a work week if they meet three requirements: (1) their regular pay is more than one and one half times the federal minimum wage; (2) more than half their compensation for a representative period of time (not less than one month) represents commission on goods or services; and (3) they are employed by a retail or service establishment.

There appeared to be no dispute that the plaintiffs received more than one and one half times the federal minimum wage, and the Court found that the plaintiffs were paid on a commission basis because they were paid only if there was a sale of window washing services to the public.  The Court had no difficulty in concluding that CCS was a “retail or service establishment”  because it sold its window washing services to building owners and managers who were the ultimate customers—they did not resell the window cleaning services.

Because the window washers met all three requirements for the overtime pay exemption for commissioned paid employees, the Court concluded they were not entitled to overtime pay.

The Court made some interesting observations about commission paid employees.

Work paid on a commission basis involves irregular hours of work, according to the Court.  An employee paid by the sale is not a commission paid worker if his sales are made at a uniform rate, such as one sale each hour.  Because the ratio of his hours of work to his pay is constant, that employee is effectively an hourly paid employee.

The CCS window washers necessarily worked irregular hours because they could not work in high winds, rain, snow, sleet and freezing temperatures.  While many of the workers took long vacations during the winter, they often worked more than eight hours a day during the other three seasons.  Because, among other factors supporting the commission exemption, the window washers could not count on working 40 hours per week for the entire year, the Court reasoned that the employer was exempt from the requirement of paying time and a half for overtime hours.

More than a year after its efforts were first announced, the U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”) has finally announced its proposed new rule pertaining to overtime. And that rule, if implemented, will result in a great many “white collar” employees previously treated as exempt becoming eligible for overtime pay for work performed beyond 40 hours in a workweek – or receiving salary increases in order that their exempt status will continue.

In 2014, President Obama directed the DOL to enhance the “white collar” exemptions to the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), which currently exempt from overtime some employees who earn $455 per week, or $23,660 per year.  The DOL’s proposed rule would more than double the salary threshold for an executive, administrative or professional exemption to apply, increasing it to $970 per week, or $50,440 per year.  In addition, the highly compensated employee exemption would increase from $100,000 to $122,148.  Not unimportantly, pursuant to the proposed rule, These salary figures would automatically adjust for annual inflation.  

Somewhat surprisingly, the proposed rule does not propose any enhancements to the duties requirements for an employee to qualify for any of the “white collar” exemptions.  The proposed rule does, however, invite comments regarding the amount of time employees should be engaged in executive, administrative, or professional work to qualify for the exemption.  Under the current federal regulations, exempt work must constitute the employee’s “primary duty.”  That is a qualitative analysis, not a quantitative one.  By inviting comments on consideration of California’s requirement that exempt duties be performed more than 50 percent of the time – a quantitative analysis – the DOL has suggested the possibility of another significant change to “white collar” exemptions.  As California employers know all too well, employees frequently file suit alleging they spend less than 50 percent of their time in exempt activities, challenging their employers to prove otherwise.  

The proposed rule likely will be published shortly in the Federal Register.  Upon publication, the proposed rule will be open to a 60-day comment period.  The DOL will review the comments, respond where appropriate and issue its final regulations.  The regulations will not be subject to Congressional approval.  It is important to note that when the “white collar” exemptions were last revised in 2004, the DOL received over 100,000 comments and spent nearly a full year responding to those comments before finalizing the regulations. 

 

Wage Hour Guide ChecklistsAs readers of this blog know, EBG’s free wage-hour app is now available for download on Apple, Android, and Blackberry devices. The app puts federal wage-hour laws and those of many states at users’ fingertips.

Now, the app also includes 7 checklists that employers should find helpful.

Each of the following checklists can be accessed through the “Downloads” icon on the app, then downloaded in seconds:

  • Applying the Administrative Exemption
  • Applying the Computer Employee Exemption
  • Applying the Executive Exemption
  • Applying the Highly Compensated Employee Exemption
  • Applying the Learned Professional Exemption
  • Common FLSA Exemption Pitfalls to Avoid
  • Wage and Hour Division Investigation

We hope you will find these checklists helpful as you try to navigate the sea of complex wage hour laws with which employers must comply.

By: Kara M. Maciel

The following is a selection from the Firm’s October Take 5 Views You Can Use which discusses recent developments in wage hour law.

  1. IRS Will Begin Taxing a Restaurant’s Automatic Gratuities as Service Charges

Many restaurants include automatic gratuities on the checks of guests with large parties to ensure that servers get fair tips. This method allows the restaurant to calculate an amount into the total bill, but it takes away a customer’s discretion in choosing whether and/or how much to tip the server. As a result of this removal of a customer’s voluntary act, the Internal Revenue Service (“IRS”) will begin classifying automatic gratuities as service charges, taxed like regular wages, beginning in January 2014.

This change is expected to be problematic for restaurants because the new treatment of automatic gratuities will complicate payroll accounting. Each restaurant will be required to factor automatic gratuities into the hourly wage of the employee, meaning the employee’s regular rate of pay could vary from day to day, thus adding a potential complication to overtime payments. Furthermore, because restaurants pay Social Security and Medicaid taxes on the amount that its employees claim in tips, restaurants are eligible for an income-tax credit for some or all of these payments. Classifying automatic gratuities as service charges, however, would lower that possible income-tax credit.

Considering that the IRS’s ruling could disadvantage servers as well, restaurants may now want to consider eliminating the use of automatic gratuities. Otherwise, employees could come under greater scrutiny in reporting their tips as a result of this ruling. Furthermore, these tips would be treated as wages, meaning upfront withholding of federal taxes and delayed access to tip earnings until payday.

Some restaurants, including several in New York City, have begun doing away with tips all together. These restaurants have replaced the practice of tipping with either a surcharge or increased food prices that include the cost of service. They can then afford to pay their servers a higher wage per hour in lieu of receiving tips. This is another way for restaurants to ensure that employees receive a sufficient wage, while simultaneously removing the regulatory burdens that a tip-system may impose.

  1. The New DOL Secretary, Tom Perez, Spells Out the WHD’s Enforcement Agenda

On September 4, 2013, the new U.S. Secretary of Labor, Tom Perez, was sworn in. During his remarks, Secretary Perez outlined several priorities for the U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”), including addressing pay equity for women, individuals with disabilities, and veterans; raising the minimum wage; and fixing the “broken” immigration system.

Most notably, and unsurprisingly, Secretary Perez emphasized the enforcement work of the Wage and Hour Division (“WHD”). Just last year, the WHD again obtained a record amount—$280 million—in back-pay for workers. Employers can expect to see continued aggressive enforcement efforts from the WHD in 2013 and 2014 on areas such as worker misclassification, overtime pay, and off-the-clock work. In fact, Secretary Perez stated in his swearing-in speech that “when we protect workers with sensible safety regulations, or when we address the fraud of worker misclassification, employers who play by the rules come out ahead.” By increasing its investigative workforce by over 40 percent since 2008, the WHD has had more time and resources to undertake targeted investigation initiatives in addition to investigations resulting from complaints, and that trend should continue.

  1. DOL Investigates Health Care Provider and Obtains $4 Million Settlement for Overtime Payments

On September 16, 2013, the DOL announced that Harris Health System (“Harris”), a Houston health care provider of emergency, outpatient, and inpatient medical services, had agreed to pay more than $4 million in back wages and damages to approximately 4,500 current and former employees for violations of the overtime and recordkeeping provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”). The DOL made this announcement after the WHD completed a more than two-year investigation into the company’s payment system, prompted by claims that employees were not being fully compensated.

Under the FLSA, employers typically must pay their non-exempt employees an overtime premium of time-and-one-half their regular rate of pay for all hours worked in excess of 40 hours in a workweek. Employers within the health care industry have special overtime rules. Notably, for all employers, an employee’s “regular rate of pay” is not necessarily the same as his or her hourly rate of pay. Rather, an employee’s “regular rate of pay” includes an employee’s “total remuneration” for that week, which consists of both the employee’s hourly rate as well as any non-discretionary forms of payment, such as commissions, bonuses, and incentive pay. The FLSA dictates that an employee’s “regular rate” of pay is then determined by dividing the employee’s total remuneration for the week by the number of hours worked that week.

The DOL’s investigation concluded that Harris had failed to: (i) include incentive pay when determining its employees’ regular rate of pay for overtime purposes, and (ii) maintain proper overtime records. As a result, Harris owed its employees a total of $2.06 million in back wages and another $2.06 million in liquidated damages.

Because an employee’s “total remuneration” for a workweek may consist of various forms of compensation, employers must consistently evaluate and assess their payment structures and payroll systems to determine the payments that must be included in an employee’s overtime calculations beyond just the hourly wage. Additionally, employers should conduct periodic audits to ensure that they are maintaining full and accurate records of all hours worked by every employee.

  1. Federal Court Strikes Down DOL Tip Pooling Rule

In 2011, the WHD enacted a strict final rule related to proper tip pooling and service charge practices. This final rule was met with swift legal challenges, and, this summer, the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon (“District Court”) concluded that the DOL had exceeded its authority when implementing its final rule. See Oregon Rest. and Lodging Assn. v. Solis, No. 3:12-cv-01261 (D. Or. June 7, 2013).

Inconsistent interpretations of the FLSA among various appellate courts have created confusion for both employers and courts regarding the applicability of valid tip pools. One of the most controversial interpretations of the FLSA occurred in early 2010, when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that an employer could require servers to pool their tips with non-tipped kitchen and other “back of the house staff,” so long as a tip credit was not taken and the servers were paid minimum wage. See Cumbie v. Woody Woo, Inc., 596 F.3d 577 (9th Cir. 2010). According to the Ninth Circuit, nothing in the text of the FLSA restricted tip pooling arrangements when no tip credit was taken; therefore, because the employer did not take a tip credit, the tip pooling arrangement did not violate the FLSA.

In 2011, the DOL issued regulations that directly conflicted with the holding in Woody Woo. As a result, employers could no longer require mandatory tip pooling with back-of-the-house employees. In conjunction with this announcement, the DOL issued an advisory memo directing its field offices nationwide, including those within the Ninth Circuit, to enforce its final rule prohibiting mandatory tip pools that include such employees who do not customarily and regularly receive tips.

Shortly after the issuance of the DOL’s final rule, hospitality groups filed a lawsuit against the DOL challenging the agency’s regulations that exclude back-of-the-house restaurant workers from employer-mandated tip pools. The lawsuit sought to declare the DOL regulations unlawful and inapplicable to restaurants that pay employees who share the tips at least the federal or applicable state minimum wage with no tip credit. On June 10, 2013, the District Court granted the plaintiffs’ summary judgment motion, holding that the DOL exceeded its authority by issuing regulations on tip pooling in restaurants. The District Court stated that the language of Section 203(m) of the FLSA is clear and unambiguous; it only imposes conditions on employers that take a tip credit.

The District Court’s decision may have a large impact on the tip pool discussion currently before courts across the country, especially if employers in the restaurant and hospitality industries begin to challenge the DOL’s regulations. Given the District Court’s implicit message encouraging legal challenges against the DOL, the status of the law regarding tip pooling is more uncertain than ever. Although the decision is a victory for employers in the restaurant and hospitality industry, given the aggressive nature of the DOL, employers in all circuits should still be extremely careful when instituting mandatory tip pool arrangements, regardless of whether a tip credit is being taken.

  1. Take Preventative Steps When Facing WHD Audits

In response to a WHD audit or inspection, here are several preventative and proactive measures that an employer can take to prepare itself prior to, during, and after the audit:

  • Prior to any notice of a WHD inspection, employers should develop and implement a comprehensive wage and hour program designed to prevent and resolve wage hour issues at an early stage. For example, employers should closely examine job descriptions to ensure that they reflect the work performed, review time-keeping systems, develop a formal employee grievance program for reporting and resolving wage and hour concerns, and confirm that all written time-keeping policies and procedures are current, accurate, and obeyed. Employers should also conduct regular self-audits with in-house or outside legal counsel (to protect the audit findings under the attorney-client privilege) and ensure that they address all recommendations immediately.
  • During a DOL investigation, employers should feel comfortable to assert their rights, including requesting 72 hours to comply with any investigative demand, requesting that interviews and on-site inspection take place at reasonable times, participating in the opening and closing conferences, protecting trade secrets and confidential business information, and escorting the investigator while he or she is at the workplace.
  • If an investigator wants to conduct a tour of an employer’s facility, an employer representative should escort the investigator at all times while on-site. While an investigator may speak with hourly employees, the employer may object to any impromptu, on-site interview that lasts more than five minutes on the grounds that it disrupts normal business operations.
  • If the DOL issues a finding of back wages following an investigation, employers should consider several options. First, an employer can pay the amount without question and accept the DOL’s findings. Second, an employer can resolve disputed findings and negotiate reduced amounts at an informal settlement conference with the investigator or his or her supervisor. Third, an employer can contest the findings and negotiate a formal settlement with the DOL’s counsel. Finally, an employer may contest the findings, prepare a defense, and proceed to trial in court.

In addition, employers should review our WHD Investigation Checklist, which can help them ensure that they have thought through all essential wage and hour issues prior to becoming the target of a DOL investigation or private lawsuit.

Following these simple measures could significantly reduce an employer’s exposure under the FLSA and similar state wage and hour laws.

by Elizabeth B. Bradley

On July 2, 2013, in Mortgage Bankers Ass’n v. DOL, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia vacated a DOL Administrative Interpretation issued in 2010 which declared that Mortgage Loan Officers are not exempt from the FLSA overtime requirements. 

Does this mean that employers can now covert their Mortgage Loan Officers to exempt, salaried, compensation plan? Not likely.

The Court of Appeals ruling vacated the DOL Administrative Interpretation on a technicality – the Court found that the DOL failed to provide the required public notice and comment period before issuing the 2010 Administrative Interpretation. The Court did not express an opinion as to merits of the DOL’s interpretation and, in fact, invited the DOL to readopt the interpretation after proceeding through the required notice and comment rulemaking procedures.  

The Court’s opinion was a reaffirmation of the requirements of the Administrative Procedure Act (“APA”), which governs administrative agency rule making; not a ruling on the proper classification of Mortgage Loan Officers.

In 2006, the DOL issued an opinion letter concluding that Mortgage Loan Officers qualified as exempt employees under the FLSA. In that opinion letter, the DOL reasoned that Mortgage Loan Officers archetypal job duties fell within the administrative exemption. Four years later, in 2010, the DOL flip-flopped and issued an Administrative Interpretation which declared that Mortgage Loan Officers do not qualify for the administrative exemption. The DOL reasoned that the primary job duty of a Mortgage Loan Officer is to make sales, which is not directly related to the management or general business operations.

Relying on Paralyzed Veterans of America v. D.C. Arena, L.P. and Alaska Professional Hunters Ass’n v. FAA, the Court of Appeals reiterated that the APA requires that agencies undergo a notice and comment rulemaking process when an agency (1) has given its regulations a definitive interpretation and (2) later significantly revises that interpretation. The Court ruled that reliance on the prior interpretation is a factor to be considered in determining the definitiveness of the prior rule and not, as the DOL argued, a third element required in order for the APA rulemaking requirements to attach.  

Accordingly, the Court’s ruling that the DOL’s 2010 Administrative Interpretation was vacated due to the DOL’s failure to follow that APA rulemaking notice and comment requirements.

Employers are cautioned that this decision should not be relied on for any modifications in the current classification of Mortgage Loan Officers. It is likely that the DOL will reissue its interpretation that Mortgage Loan Officer do not qualify under the administrative exemption in the near future – this time following the mandates of the APA.