Our colleagues Michael S. Kun, Jeffrey H. Ruzal, and Kevin Sullivan at Epstein Becker Green co-wrote a “Wage and Hour Self-Audits Checklist” for the Lexis Practice Advisor.

The checklist identifies the main risk categories for wage and hour self-audits. To avoid potentially significant liability for wage and hour violations, employers should consider wage and hour self-audits to identify and close compliance gaps.

Click here to download the Checklist in PDF format.  Learn more about the Lexis Practice Advisor.

This excerpt from Lexis Practice Advisor®, a comprehensive practical guidance resource providing insight from leading practitioners, is reproduced with the permission of LexisNexis. Reproduction of this material, in any form, is specifically prohibited without written consent from LexisNexis.

In Tze-Kit Mui v. Massachusetts Port Authority, Massachusetts’ highest court held that Massachusetts law does not require employers to pay departing employees for accrued, unused sick time within the timeframe prescribed for “wages,” as the term is defined by the Massachusetts Wage Act.

In reaching its decision, the Court analyzed the plain meaning of “wages” under the Act and concluded that the legislature did not intend that “wages” would include sick time. The decision removes a significant concern for Massachusetts employers who are strictly liable for treble damages — and can face criminal liability —  for failing to pay wages in a timely manner.

The case involved an employee Massachusetts Port Authority (“Massport”), who retired while disciplinary charges were pending against him.  Massport discharged the plaintiff for cause weeks after his retirement.  Following a grievance procedure, his discharge was overturned by an arbitrator who found that the plaintiff could not have been discharged because he had already retired.

The plaintiff had 2,232 hours of unused sick time at retirement. Since a discharged employee is not eligible for sick pay under Massport’s sick time policy, Massport did not pay the plaintiff for his unused sick time until after the arbitrator’s decision finding that he had retired prior to being discharged.  The payment occurred more than one year after the plaintiff’s retirement.

The plaintiff filed suit, seeking treble damages for alleged violations of the Massachusetts Wage Act. Under the act, an employer must pay wages or salary earned by a departing employee “in full on the following regular pay day.”  A discharged employee must be paid wages or salary earned “in full on the day of his [or her] discharge.”

The plaintiff argued that Massport had violated the act by failing to timely compensate him for his unused sick pay. The plaintiff’s motion for judgment on the pleadings in the Superior Court was granted.  Massport appealed, and the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court transferred the case from the Appeals Court.

In evaluating whether sick pay qualifies as wages under Massachusetts law, the Court looked to the plain language of the Act to discern legislative intent. The act defines “wages” to include “any holiday or vacation payments due an employee under an oral or written agreement,” but does not reference sick pay.  The Court declined to read sick pay into the definition where it had not been expressly included by the legislature.

In addition, the Court explained that vacation time is different from sick time. The crucial distinction is that sick time, as defined by Massachusetts law, can only be used if the employee or a family member is ill, whereas vacation time can be used for any reason.  The Court reasoned that, because employees do not have an absolute right to use sick time, Massachusetts law does not require employers to compensate employees for accrued, unused sick time, and employers can adopt “use it or lose it” sick time policies.  Since employers are not required by law compensate employees for unused sick time, the court concluded “such time is clearly not a wage under the act.”

Under its policy, Massport agreed to pay departing employees for accrued, unused sick time as long as the employee had worked at Massport for two years and had not been terminated for cause. The Court characterized this arrangement as a “contingent bonus.”  Commissions are the only contingent compensation considered wages under the act provided that they “ha[ve] been definitely determined and due and ha[ve] become payable to [the] employee.”  The Court declined to extend the definition of “wages” to include other types of contingent compensation.

Finally, the Court concluded that, under the circumstances of the case, it would have been impossible for Massport to comply with the Act. The issue of the plaintiff’s separation date was not resolved until the payment deadline provided by the Act had lapsed.  Because compliance would not have been possible in this case, interpreting the act to include sick pay as wages would lead to an absurd result.

While the decision is a favorable one for employers who do business in Massachusetts, given the significant liability that employers may incur for failing to comply with the Act, Massachusetts employers should confer with counsel when wage payment issues arise.

As 2017 comes to a close, recent headlines have underscored the importance of compliance and training. In this Take 5, we review major workforce management issues in 2017, and their impact, and offer critical actions that employers should consider to minimize exposure:

  1. Addressing Workplace Sexual Harassment in the Wake of #MeToo
  2. A Busy 2017 Sets the Stage for Further Wage-Hour Developments
  3. Your “Top Ten” Cybersecurity Vulnerabilities
  4. 2017: The Year of the Comprehensive Paid Leave Laws
  5. Efforts Continue to Strengthen Equal Pay Laws in 2017

Read the full Take 5 online or download the PDF.

In 2017, a great many states and localities passed laws increasing minimum wages beginning on January 1, 2018. (Some passed laws that will be effective on July 1, 2018 or other dates.)

Below is a summary of the minimum wage updates (and related tipped minimum wage requirements, where applicable) that go into effect on January 1, 2018, unless otherwise indicated.

Current New
State Categories Minimum Wage Tipped Minimum Wage Minimum Wage Tipped Minimum Wage
Alaska $9.80 $9.84
Arizona $10.00 $7.00 $10.50 $7.50
26 or more employees $10.50 $11.00
25 or fewer employees $10.00 $10.50
Colorado $9.30 $6.28 $10.20 $7.18
Florida $8.10 $5.08 $8.25 $5.23
Hawaii $9.25 $8.50 $10.10 $9.35
Maine $9.00 $5.00 $10.00 $5.00
Michigan $8.90 $3.38 $9.25 $3.52
Large employer (annual gross revenue of $500,000 or more) $9.50 $9.65
Small employer (annual gross revenue of less than $500,000) $7.75 $7.87
Missouri $7.70 $3.85 $7.85 $3.925
Montana $8.15 $8.30
New Jersey $8.44 $6.31 $8.60 $6.47
New York (effective December 31, 2017)
NYC – more than 10 employees $11.00 $7.50* $13.00 $8.70
NYC – 10 or fewer employees $10.50 $7.50 $12.00 $8.00
Nassau, Suffolk, & Westchester Counties $10.00 $7.50 $11.00 $7.50
Remainder of State $9.70 $7.50 $10.40 $7.50
Ohio $8.15 $4.08 $8.30 $4.15
Rhode Island $9.60 $3.89 $10.10 $3.89
South Dakota $8.65 $4.325 $8.85 $4.425
Vermont $10.00 $5.00 $10.50 $5.25
Washington $11.00 $11.50

*Different rules apply based on certain industries, such as for food service, fast food (within New York City), and hospitality industries.

Current New
Location Categories Minimum Wage Tipped Minimum Wage Minimum Wage Tipped Minimum Wage
Flagstaff, AZ $10.50 $11.00
Cupertino, CA $12.00 $13.50  
El Cerrito, CA $12.25 $13.60  
Los Altos, CA $12.00 $13.50  
Milpitas, CA $11.00 $12.00  
Mountain View, CA $13.00 $15.00  
Oakland, CA $12.86 $13.23  
Palo Alto, CA $12.00 $13.50  
Richmond, CA $12.30 $13.41  
Sacramento, CA 40 or more employees $10.50 $11.00  
San Jose, CA $12.00 $13.50  
San Mateo, CA  
501(c)(3) non-profit $10.50 $12.00  
Other businesses $12.00 $13.50  
Santa Clara, CA $11.10 $13.00  
Sunnyvale, CA $13.00 $15.00  
Bangor, ME $8.25 $4.125 $9.00 $4.50
New Mexico          
Albuquerque, NM
No healthcare provided $8.80 $5.30 $8.95 $5.35
Health care provided $7.80 $5.30 $7.95 $5.35
Bernalillo County $8.70 $2.13 $8.85 $2.13
Seattle, WA  
Small employer (500 or fewer employees) – without tips and/or medical benefits $13.00 $14.00  
Small employer (500 or fewer employees) – with tips and/or medical benefits $11.00 $11.50  
Large employer (501 or more employees) – without medical benefits $15.00 $15.45  
Large employer (501 or more employees) – with medical benefits $13.50 $15.00  
Tacoma, WA $11.15 $12.00  



As we have discussed previously, in early September the U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”) withdrew its appeal of last November’s ruling from the Eastern District of Texas preliminarily enjoining the Department’s 2016 Final Rule that, among other things, more than doubled the minimum salary required to satisfy the Fair Labor Standards Act’s executive, administrative, and professional exemptions from $455 per week ($23,660 per year) to $913 per week ($47,476 per year).  The DOL abandoned its appeal in light of the district court’s ruling on August 31, 2017 granting summary judgment and holding that the 2016 increase to the salary level conflicted with the statute and thus was invalid, a ruling that rendered the appeal of the injunction moot.

On October 30, 2017, to the surprise of many observers, the DOL filed a notice of appeal regarding the district court’s summary judgment ruling, taking the case back to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.   Four days later, the DOL filed an unopposed motion asking the Fifth Circuit to stay the appeal in light of the Department’s pending rulemaking to update the salary requirement.  On November 6, 2017, the Fifth Circuit granted the motion, staying the appeal pending the outcome of the new rulemaking.

The DOL’s maneuvers may appear confusing. In short, the district court’s summary judgment ruling causes a certain amount of heartburn for the Department because the court in effect concluded that although the DOL has the authority to require a minimum salary for these exemptions, there is a point beyond which the Department cannot go without having the salary level deemed invalid.  The court did not, however, provide a clear standard for identifying the outer limit of the Department’s authority to impose a salary threshold, and this uncertainty creates confusion and a risk of time-consuming and expensive litigation for the Department — and for employees and employers throughout the country.

By appealing the summary judgment ruling, the DOL preserves the option of challenging the decision rather than simply allowing it to remain on the books as a precedent.  Once the Department completes the rulemaking process and issues an updated salary standard, the likely final move would be for the Department to move to dismiss the litigation and to vacate the district court’s order on the basis that the challenge to the 2016 Final Rule has become moot.  Once the new rule is in place and the district court’s summary judgment ruling is no longer on the books, it will be as though the 2016 Final Rule never happened.

We will keep you posted as this matter develops.

As many will recall, the Department of Labor’s (“DOL”) overtime rule, increasing the salary threshold for overtime exemptions at the behest of the Obama administration, was scheduled to take effect on December 1, 2016. Months later, it remains in limbo before the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal. And it apparently will remain in limbo for at least several more months.

After publication of the final overtime rule on May 23, 2016, two lawsuits were filed by a coalition of 21 states and a number of business advocacy groups, claiming that the DOL exceeded its rulemaking authority in finalizing the overtime rule. The lawsuits, which were consolidated, sought a variety of relief, including a preliminary injunction blocking the overtime rule from taking effect.

Days before the final rule went into effect, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Texas granted Plaintiffs’ motion and issued a nationwide preliminary injunction. Prior to President Trump’s inauguration, the Department of Labor appealed the order to the Fifth Circuit. Thereafter, the DOL was granted two extensions of time to consider whether it wished to proceed with the appeal.

The most recent extension was set to expire on May 1, 2017 . Now, the DOL has requested – and the Fifth Circuit has granted – yet another 60-day extension because Secretary of Labor nominee Alexander Acosta has not yet been confirmed. In granting the extension, the Fifth Circuit continued the DOL’s deadline to file its reply brief to June 30, 2017.

This most recent extension will give additional time to the DOL to evaluate its options, which includes abandoning the appeal and any further efforts to implement and enforce the overtime rule. It is important to keep in mind, however, that even though Secretary of Labor Nominee Acosta does not appear to support the Obama administration’s plan to more than double the salary threshold, he has expressed opinions that suggest he would support updating the overtime rule to some degree, possibly increasing the salary threshold to mirror inflation. It is also important to be mindful that certain states, including New York and California, have a higher minimum salary threshold than the current federal requirement of $455 per week. We will continue to monitor and report on this important matter as it develops.

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.

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. ThompsonThe Missouri Supreme Court has overturned a lower court’s ruling that St. Louis’ minimum wage ordinance is invalid, finding that the ordinance is not preempted by the state law.

St. Louis City’s Ordinance 70078 (“the Ordinance”) provides for a series of increases to the minimum wage for employees working within the boundaries of St. Louis. The plaintiffs argued that Ordinance 70078 was preempted by the state minimum wage law.  The plaintiffs contended that state law affirmatively authorized employers to pay as little as $7.65 per hour, the state minimum wage rate.

A trial court accepted the plaintiffs’ argument and, in October 2015, held that the Ordinance was invalid.

The Missouri Supreme Court reversed the trial court’s ruling and rejected the plaintiffs’ argument.  Because the state minimum wage law merely prohibits employers from paying employees a wage lower than the state minimum, local ordinances imposing higher minimum wages did not conflict with the state statute.

Furthermore, Missouri’s minimum wage law did not “occupy the field” of minimum wage laws. In fact, the Missouri Supreme Court noted that the state legislature had recognized and authorized local ordinances addressing minimum wages.

Notably, both the trial court and the Missouri Supreme Court rejected the plaintiffs’ argument based on Section 67.1571 of the Missouri Statutes, which prohibits “political subdivisions of this state from establishing or requiring a minimum wage that exceeds the state minimum wage.” The courts agreed that the Missouri Constitution prohibits bills containing more than one subject, and Section 67.1571 violated this requirement because its primary purpose was to establish community improvement districts.

Under the phase-in schedule in the Ordinance, the minimum wage in St. Louis was set to rise to $10.00 per hour on January 1, 2017 and $11.00 per hour on January 1, 2018, after which the minimum wage will be increased annually to reflect the rate of inflation.

St. Louis city officials issued a statement explaining that businesses will be provided “a reasonable grace period to adjust to the new minimum wage rate,” but will be subject to revocation of their business licenses if they do not comply with the Ordinance.

Our colleagues, Susan Gross Sholinsky, Dean L. Silverberg, Jeffrey M. Landes, Jeffrey H. Ruzal, Nancy L. Gunzenhauser, and Marc-Joseph Gansah have written an Act Now Advisory that will be of interest to many of our readers: “New York State Department of Labor Implements New Salary Basis Thresholds for Exempt Employees.

Following is an excerpt:

The New York State Department of Labor (“NYSDOL”) has adopted its previously proposed amendments to the state’s minimum wage orders to increase the salary basis threshold for executive and administrative employees (“Amendments”). The final version of the Amendments contains no changes from the proposals set forth by the NYSDOL on October 19, 2016. The Amendments become effective in only three days—on December 31, 2016.

While the status of the new salary basis threshold for exempt employees pursuant to the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) is still unclear following the nationwide preliminary injunction enjoining the U.S. Department of Labor (“USDOL”) from implementing its new regulations,this state-wide change requires immediate action for employers that did not increase exempt employees’ salaries or convert employees to non-exempt positions in light of the proposed federal overtime rule.

Read the full post here.