Tips Do Not Count Towards the Minimum Wage Unless a Worker Qualified as a “Tipped Employe"It is a common practice for employers to provide their employees with rest breaks during the work day.  (And in some states, like California, it is required by state law.) But under what circumstances is an employer required to pay its employees for break time?

In U.S. Department of Labor v. American Future Systems Inc. et al., the Third Circuit Court of Appeals was asked to decide whether the Fair Labor Standards Act requires employers to compensate employees for breaks of 20 minutes or less during which they are free from performing any work.

The employer in that case produced business publications that were sold over the telephone by sales representatives.  The sales representatives could log off of their computers and take breaks whenever they chose and for any length of time.  They were free to leave the premises.   However, if the employees were logged off their computers for more than 90 seconds, they were not paid for the break time.

The Department of Labor (“DOL”) filed suit against the company.  The DOL relied on 29 C.F.R. § 785.18, which states:

Rest.

Rest periods of short duration, running from 5 minutes to about 20 minutes, are common in industry. They promote the efficiency of the employee and are customarily paid for as working time. They must be counted as hours worked…

The District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania granted partial summary judgment to the DOL, concluding that section 785.18 created a “bright-line rule” and the company violated the FLSA by failing to pay its employees for rest breaks of twenty minutes or less.  The company appealed to the Third Circuit.

The company argued that the DOL was attempting to enforce the wrong regulation, and instead the court should apply 29 C.F.R. § 785.16 to its break policy.  That regulation states:

Off duty.

Periods during which an employee is completely relieved from duty and which are long enough to enable him to use the time effectively for his own purposes are not hours worked.  He is not completely relieved from duty and cannot use the time effectively for his own purposes unless he is definitely told in advance that he may leave the job and that he will not have to commence work until a definitely specified hour has arrived.  Whether the time is long enough to enable him to use the time effectively for his own purposes depends upon all of the facts and circumstances of the case.

The company contended that the “off duty” regulation should apply.  The company pointed out that its policy was completely flexible, allowed employees to take as many breaks as they wanted for as long as they wanted, allowed them to be completely relieved of all duties and created no obligation to return to work.  Therefore, the company argued that under the facts and circumstances of the case, even breaks of less than 20 minutes were not compensable.

The Third Circuit disagreed.  It stated that the “off duty” regulation provides a general rule regarding the compensability of hours worked, but section 785.18 is a more specific regulation that carves out an exception to the general rule.  The Third Circuit held that section 785.18 establishes a bright-line rule that employers must pay their employees for any rest breaks of 20 minutes or less.

To date, it does not appear that any other Circuit Court has weighed in on this issue.  That another Circuit might reach a different conclusion is certainly possible.  And it is also possible that the Supreme Court may have the final word on this issue.

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.

In a much anticipated filing with the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal in State of Nevada, et a. v. United States Department of Labor, et al, the United States Department of Labor has made clear that it is not defending the Obama Administration’s overtime rule that would more than double the threshold for employees to qualify for most overtime exemptions. However, the Department has taken up the appeal filed by the previous Administration to reverse the preliminary injunction issued blocking implementation of the rule, requesting that the Court overturn as erroneous the Eastern District of Texas’ finding, and reaffirm the Department’s authority to establish a salary level test. And the Department has requested that the Court not address the validity of the specific salary level set by the 2016 final rule because the Department intends to revisit the salary level threshold through new rulemaking.

The litigation stems from action taken by the Department in May 2016 to issue a final rule that would have increased the minimum salary threshold for most overtime exemptions under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) from $23,660 per year to $47,476 per year. The rule was scheduled to become effective on December 1, 2016, but a federal judge issued a temporary injunction blocking its implementation just days beforehand.

Section 13(a) of the FLSA exempts from the Act’s minimum wage and overtime pay requirements “any employee employed in a bona fide executive, administrative, or professional [(“EAP”)] capacity * * * [specifically providing,] as such terms are defined and delimited from time to time by regulations of the Secretary [of Labor].” 29 U.S.C. § 213(a)(1). To be subject to this exemption, a worker must (1) be paid on a salary basis; (2) earn a specified salary level; and (3) satisfy a duties test.  In enjoining the 2016 rule, the District Court for the Eastern District of Texas reasoned that the salary-level component of this three-part test is unlawful, concluding that “Congress defined the EAP exemption with regard to duties, which does not include a minimum salary level,” and that the statute “does not grant the Department the authority to utilize a salary-level test.”

In seeking reversal of the preliminary injunction, the Department has argued that the Fifth Circuit expressly rejected the claim that the salary-level test is unlawful in Wirtz v. Mississippi Publishers Corp. In Wirtz, the Court reasoned that “[t]he statute gives the Secretary broad latitude to ‘define and delimit’ the meaning of the term ‘bona fide executive * * * capacity,” and he rejected the contention that “the minimum salary requirement is arbitrary or capricious.”  Further, the Department argues that every circuit to consider the issue has upheld the salary-level test as a permissible component of the EAP regulations.

By many accounts, the Department’s recently-appointed Labor Secretary, Alexander Acosta, has made clear that he does not think the salary level should be at $47,476 per year, but rather set at a more reasonable level between $30,000 and $35,000 per year. While Secretary Acosta may disagree with the salary level of the 2016 rule, the Department’s brief seems to make clear that he wants to ensure that he has the authority to set any salary threshold.

In issuing the preliminary injunction, the District Court did not address the validity of the salary level threshold set by the 2016 rule. Because the injunction rested on the legal conclusion that the Department lacks authority to set a salary level, it may be reversed on the ground that the legal ruling was erroneous. As a result, by requesting that the Fifth Circuit not address the validity of the salary level set by the 2016 rule, should the Court reverse the preliminary injunction without ruling on the salary level’s validity, it is unclear whether the 2016 rule will immediately go into effect pending new rulemaking. Employers need to stay tuned.

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.”

One of the featured stories on Employment Law This Week – Epstein Becker Green’s new video program – is that there will be no BlackBerry overtime pay for cops in Chicago.

A federal magistrate judge in the Northern District of Illinois ruled that time spent by Chicago police officers actually answering emails on their BlackBerries was work eligible for overtime. However, “monitoring” of their BlackBerries was not work because the officers were still free to use the time predominantly for their own benefit. Regardless, the judge found that the City did not know the employees were doing any work, and the officers failed to report it, so the workers were not entitled to any compensation. There is reportedly a plan to appeal. In mid-2015, the Wage & Hour Division requested information regarding the use of portable electronic devices by employees outside of scheduled work hours, so this issue is one to watch.

See below to view the episode and watch “What’s Behind the 2015 Increase in FLSA Lawsuits?” on our blog.

 

As our readers know, for the purposes of certain blog entries, I have unilaterally declared that I am the Secretary of Labor.

Effective immediately:

  1. The “computer professional” exemption applies to anyone with a salary of at least $800 per week whose primary duty requires “highly specialized knowledge of computers and software.”  The exemption now includes employees who provide help desk services, troubleshooting support, or who install hardware or software.
  2. In regard to New York law, building owners who provide free apartments to their janitors can still count the value of the apartment as wages.  However, that value is no longer based on the rental rate of the apartment on June 1, 1975.
    • Building owners will be credited with the current fair market value of the apartment, and janitors will be paid on an hourly basis.
    • As under federal law, a New York janitor who resides in the employer’s building is not considered as working all the time he is on the premises.  Any reasonable agreement of the parties as to the number of hours worked will be accepted.
  3. To clarify: time spent waiting for a security bag check at the end of a shift is not compensable “hours worked.”Generally, time spent going to or coming from work is not working time.  Preliminary and postliminary activities may be compensable if they are “integral and indispensable” to an employee’s principal duties.  However, general security does not relate to anyone’s particular duties, so it’s not compensable.
  4. California law is preempted.  It’s just time.
  5. The ability to use mobile devices for business communications while an employee is away from the workplace is a benefit to the employee as well as the employer.  Therefore, using a mobile device to read or respond to electronic communications for less than 20 minutes per day shall be considered de minimis amount of time and therefore shall not be compensable

Let’s get to work.

 By Michael Kun

At virtually every point in time, we have thought of ourselves as being technologically advanced. 

Older readers of this blog will recall the first time they ever saw a calculator.  It was the size of a paperback novel, it cost more than $100, and it was spectacular.  It was unfathomable that anyone would ever design anything more advanced.  Now, you can get a calculator at the checkout stand of your local supermarket for about $2.  And you will probably raise a few eyebrows if you buy one, if only because most people have no need for calculators.  They are built right into most laptop computers, tablets and smartphones – devices that only science fiction writers could possibly have dreamed of.

As a result of all of these technological advances, many employees work in front of a computer screen, and most have tiny computers in their shirt pockets, briefcases or purses at all times. 

In other words, most employees are no more than inches away from the internet, from email and from a phone at any moment during their working days. 

And employees cannot resist the temptation of those devices.  (How long was it after the introduction of the Blackberry before the first person referred to it as a “Crackberry”?)

How often have you been at a store, only to find the sales clerk off in a corner on a personal call on his or her smartphone, or checking emails?

How many times have you walked past a co-worker’s desk as he or she hurries to change the screen so you won’t see the fantasy football standings, or the webpage for a bookstore, or a social media site, or a lengthy exchange of emails with friends?  (Full disclosure: had you walked into my office 5 minutes ago, my browser was open to www.espn.com.  Specifically, the major league baseball page.)

Some employers have tried to minimize time spent in these activities by putting up firewalls on their computers.  What has this done?  It has led to discontented employees, who have just turned to using their smartphones for such activities.

Some employers have tried to put an end to time spent on smartphones at work.   What has been the result?  More discontent from employees, who take their smartphones to the restrooms or hallway.  While I personally can only attest to what I have observed in men’s rooms, I have little doubt that women’s rooms are quite similar — people having personal telephone calls, often about exceedingly private matters, or clicking away on their smartphones, while others try to remain quiet or wait patiently to use the restroom for its intended purpose.  (I won’t comment on how downright weird it is for you to be talking to someone while you’re in the restroom other than to say that any time I get a call from someone and hear a flush in the background, everything he or she has just said immediately loses 20% of its value.  And I become much more cautious about discussing anything confidential with them when I know they are on a smartphone.)

While most employers try to minimize such personal activities, few have been able to stop it entirely.  And most understand the serious morale issues that would follow were they to try. 

Like it or not, employees are going to continue to use some work time each day on personal emails and calls, and on social media or the internet.

They’re going to continue to shop online when no one is looking.

They’re going to play fantasy football or fantasy baseball while they’re on the clock. 

They’re going to check their social media sites to see if someone has posted a new picture of a cat or shared the most recent “Which member of One Direction are you?” quiz.  (Full disclosure:  apparently, I am Harry.  Fuller disclosure: with a soon to be eight-year-old daughter, I know all of One Direction’s songs far too well and can actually name all of the band’s members – first and last names.  And feel free to quiz me on Taylor Swift or anything on the Disney Channel or Nickelodeon.)

Most employers understand all of this and, within reason, tolerate it.  It is a part of doing business in the second decade of the twenty-first century.

But it also raises a wage-hour issue that few employers think about:  if an employee has to work an additional hour of overtime because he spent an hour of the workday dealing with his fantasy football team, why should the employer have to pay for that time – and at an overtime rate, to boot?

 Why?

If you say, “Because the employee was on the employer’s premises,” try again.  An employer doesn’t have to pay an employee for all of the time he was on its premises.  If the law were otherwise, employees could grant themselves significant raises just by showing up for work a few hours early each day and reading the newspaper in the break room or taking a nap in a nice warm corner at the end of each day. 

And if you say, “The employer should have to pay because it didn’t catch the employee playing fantasy football, or shopping, or whatever,” ask yourself if that is what you really want – management standing over an employee’s shoulder all day or otherwise monitoring the employee’s ever workday activity to make sure the employee is not taking advantage.  You don’t want Big Brother in the workplace.  Don’t pretend you do. (A personal note: if you believe the reference to “Big Brother” relates to a TV show by that name, I’d encourage you to pick up the seminal George Orwell novel 1984, wherein the phrase was born.)

Practically speaking, this hypothetical – the employee who works an hour of overtime because he spent an hour on the clock playing fantasy football – speaks to the need for management to try to minimize such personal activities in a way that does not hurt employee morale.  The time spent on such entirely personal activities is costly, particularly where it leads to unnecessary overtime at overtime rates.  Every time the employee who makes $20 per hour spends an hour engaged in such personal activities, the employer has effectively paid him or her $20 for doing so.  And if they have to work an hour of overtime because they spent an hour playing fantasy football, that costs the employer an additional $30 – time-and-a-half of the employee’s regular rate. 

In other words, the employer has just paid the employee $30 to play fantasy football.  Or to shop.  Or to check Facebook. 

Where this really hits employers is in litigation.

We have written many times in this blog about the prevalence of wage-hour class actions and collective actions.  Many of them contend that employees were not paid for all of the time they worked.  Many claim that employees performed a few minutes of work before their shifts began, or after they ended.  They seek to be paid for an additional 10 minutes per day, or 15, or 20, or more.  And they seek statutory penalties.  And, always, attorney’s fees. 

But what if that same employee who contends he was shortchanged by 10 minutes of pay per day spent 30 minutes each day on social media, or shopping, or playing fantasy football, or exchanging personal emails?

Isn’t there something so clearly wrong about an employee who has been paid for engaging in personal activities turning around and seeking additional compensation under such circumstances?

Hasn’t that employee already been overpaid

Having had the pleasure of representing a great many companies in the defense of wage-hour class actions, I am always pleasantly surprised to see that most employers take a very realistic approach to the workplace, that they understand that employees probably spend some time engaging in these activities.

And I am often unpleasantly surprised to see how much time the people who sue spend in such activities, and how they believe it is their right to do so and to be paid for it – and to seek more money on top of it.

The employee who made thousands of personal telephone calls while on the clock still thinks she is entitled to more pay for a few minutes she claims she worked at the end of her shift.

The employee who regularly napped while being paid still thinks he should be paid more.

The employee who has his ugly fantasy football championship trophy on his desk forgets that his employer not only paid him for much of the time he spent earning that trophy, but had to pay him for overtime, too, because he didn’t get his work done during the business day. 

The employee who has box after box of merchandise shipped to the workplace thinks he is not only entitled to be paid for the time he spent online, but for more time.

In the litigation context, shouldn’t the time employees spend in personal activities be weighed against the additional time for which the employee is seeking recovery?

If an employee contends he or she was not paid for 6 minutes of off-the-clock work each day, but the employer can show that he or she spent 30 minutes a day engaged in personal activities, shouldn’t that employee recover nothing?

Very generally speaking, the courts haven’t weighed in on this issue yet. 

But someday, perhaps soon, they will.

And if they begin subtracting the time spent on personal activities on their smartphones or laptops from an employee’s claim the he or she was not paid for all of the time worked, they are likely going to find that many of the employees claiming they were underpaid were actually overpaid. 

That just makes sense, doesn’t it?

In this way, perhaps technology will meet its match in something that has been around for centuries – logic. 

by Michael Kun

The workplace used to be a lot easier to manage.  That’s because the workplace used to be, well, the workplace.

Employees went to work, they worked, and they went home.  And when they went home, they were usually done working for the day, unless they got an emergency phone call from the boss. 

There was the workplace, and there was home, and (with those rare exceptions) never the twain shall meet.

For better or worse, those days are long gone.

First, there was the answering machine at home. 

Then, the cellphone.

Now, few are those employees who do not have a device connecting them to work in their shirt pockets or their purses.  I’m speaking, of course, about smartphones. 

A great many employees, particularly those in engaged in non-manual labor, have workplace email addresses. 

And, more and more, employers allow their employees to send and receive emails from their workplace email addresses through their smartphones. 

And, more and more, employees are sending and receiving emails after-hours on those smartphones.

As employment lawyers, we have long warned clients and prospective clients that it was only a matter of time before non-exempt employees – and their lawyers – started filing suits contending that they were entitled to be paid for the additional time they spent after-hours reviewing and responding to work-related emails.  And, whenever those lawsuits would be filed, we anticipated that they would be filed as class actions or collective actions. 

Well, that day apparently has come.

 Although there have been more than a few lawsuits filed over the years alleging that non-exempt employees were entitled to be paid for the time spent “off the clock” dealing with work-related emails, those claims are more prevalent now than ever. 

Perhaps recognizing that the time spent on after-hours emails might be sporadic or that it might be only a few minutes on many occasions – which would create an argument that such time is non-compensable, de minimis time – employees and their attorneys are not simply filing suit over email time.  Instead, they are filing suit over all alleged “off the clock” time, including not only time spent on emails, but also time spent booting up computers at the beginning of the day and shutting them down at the end, as well as other, similar activities. 

Checking emails after hours may only take 5 or 6 minutes a day, they argue, but when you add it to the other “off the clock” time, it is significant.  And, they argue, they are entitled to be paid for all of that time.

Fifteen minutes a day, they argue, adds up for one employee.  Multiply it by an entire workforce, and the potential exposure could be significant.

There are a number of ways employers can address this phenomenon:

(1)   Employers can reassess their needs and determine whether it would be wise to prevent employees from receiving work-related emails anywhere other than at work.  In other words, they can determine whether to prevent employees from even accessing emails to and from their work email addresses on their smartphones (or on their home computers, laptops or tablets).  If there is an emergency after hours, you can contact them the old-fashioned way – pick up the phone and call them. 

(2)   Should employers decide not to cut off email access outside of the workplace, they – and management employees in particular – can address how often and under what circumstances they send emails to employees after hours.  When you send an email to an employee at 10:00 pm, you may well intend that he or she not look at it until the morning.  But you know your employees are likely to do the same thing you do when their smartphones buzz to let them know they have received new emails – they are going to check.  Yes, that may be a reflex.  But the employee will not know if it is an emergency until he or she opens your email. 

(3)   If employers are not going to cut off access to emails, they should consider revising their time reporting systems to allow employees to report time spent dealing with after-hours emails.  At the very least, that would help to cut off exposure on an “off the clock” claim.  And should employees report significant time spent after hours engaged in such conduct, the employer can then reconsider (1) and (2). 

by Stuart M. Gerson

On January 27, 2014, the United States Supreme Court resolved a long-standing and hotly-contested issue of importance to unions, when it held that time spent donning and doffing required protective gear was not compensable under the Fair Labor Standards Act and the terms of a collective bargaining agreement.   Sandifer v. United States Steel Corp., No. 12–417. 

The plaintiffs had filed a putative collective action under the FLSA, seeking back pay for time spent donning and doffing pieces of protective gear that they were required to wear because of hazards in the workplace.

U. S. Steel contended that this donning-and-doffing time, which would otherwise be compensable under the FLSA, was not compensable based on a provision in the collective bargaining agreement with the petitioners’ union.  The Supreme Court stated that the “validity of that provision depends, in turn, upon the applicability of 29 U. S. C. §203(o) to the time at issue.”

Under §203(o), which was added to the FLSA in 1949, a labor union and an employer may agree (in a collective-bargaining agreement) on whether “time spent in changing clothes . . . at the beginning or end of each workday” will be compensable.  (Emphasis added.)

In Sandifer, both the District Court and the Seventh Circuit had sided with the employer.  The Supreme Court agreed, holding that the time the workers spent donning and doffing their protective gear was not compensable by operation of the collective bargaining agreement and §203(o). 

The Supreme Court’s ruling turned on whether the donning and doffing of protective gear qualified as “changing clothes” under §203(o).

In determining that donning and doffing protective gear qualifies as “changing clothes,” the Court held that “[d]ictionaries from the era of §203(o)’s enactment indicate that ‘clothes’ denotes items that are both designed and used to cover the body and are commonly regarded as articles of dress… That is what we hold to be the meaning of the word as used in §203(o).” 

The Supreme Court then stated: “We see no basis for the proposition that the unmodified term ‘clothes’ somehow omits protective clothing.”

The Court further held that “time spent in changing clothes” includes any time spent in “altering dress.”

Accordingly, The Supreme Court held that whether one completely puts on different clothes in the workplace, or put a uniform over what he was wearing, the time spent on such activities may be non-compensable under the terms of a collective bargaining agreement.

This has been a matter of considerable interest to manufacturing labor unions and so it is notable that the decision of the Court was unanimous (though Sotomayor, J., disagreed with one footnote). 

Unionized employers ranging from hospitals and hotels and restaurants to manufacturers will be interested in the holding in the Sandifer case, and should consider its impact in future collective bargaining negotiations.

Virtually all employers are aware that, pursuant to the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), they are required to compensate employees for all hours worked.

What is not as clear, however, is whether the time an employee spends at training programs, lectures, meetings, and other similar activities should be considered hours worked. As a result, clients often ask whether they are required to compensate employees for time spent in such training activities.

The short answer to this question is that an employee’s time spent in training sessions should be considered compensable “working time” unless the following four factors are met:

Attendance is outside of the employee’s regular working hours;

Attendance is voluntary;

The training is not directly related to the employee’s job; and

The employee does not perform any productive work during the training.

This “four-factor test,” however, is not as straightforward as it may seem. Indeed, as demonstrated by the below “Common Employer Inquiries and Responses,” these factors contain many nuances that may make it difficult for an employer to easily determine whether training time should be compensable.

Common Employer Inquiries and Responses

i. How should an employer determine whether attendance at a training session is outside “regular working hours?”

By default, some employers interpret the term “regular working hours” to mean the, standard hours of 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. As a result, these employers automatically compensate all employees for any training that takes place during these hours, even for those who do not work this standard schedule. Such an interpretation, however, may result in significant overpayments to your employees.

The term “regular working hours” refers to the particular shift worked by an individual employee.

Thus, if an employee regularly works a shift from 2:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m., an employer would not be required to compensate her for attending a training session from 9:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. (assuming all three other factors were satisfied), since the training session would be outside of her specific regular working hours.

ii. How can an employer ensure that attendance will be considered “voluntary”?

The Department of Labor (“DOL”) classifies training as “voluntary” if (1) the employer does not require the employee to attend the training; and (2) the employee is not led to believe that her employment would be adversely affected if she does not attend the training. If an employer takes an adverse action against the employee as a result of her failure to attend the training, attendance clearly is not voluntary and the employee must be compensated.

Therefore, an employer should explicitly convey to its employees that any unpaid training is not required and ensure that its supervisors and managers do not give any indication that non-attendance will result in an adverse employment action against the non-attending employee.

iii. When is a training considered “directly related to” an employee’s job?

Of all the factors set forth in the four-factor test, the question of whether training is directly related to an employee’s job generates the most employer uncertainty.

In short, training is directly related to an employee’s job if it is designed to make her more effective in her position or to teach her something new she needs to know to perform her current job duties.

Conversely, training is not directly related to an employee’s job when its primary focus is to prepare an employee for advancement or train her for another position, even if it results in incidental improvement to an employee’s ability to perform her regular duties. Furthermore, training is not considered to be directly related to an employee’s job when an employer’s non-mandatory training program is of general applicability and corresponds to courses offered by independent, bona fide institutions of learning.

Questions from employers often arise as to whether non-mandatory training offered by the employer to facilitate attainment or renewal of a license, permit or certification is directly related to an employee’s job.

For example, a furniture distributor may offer non-mandatory training sessions to its delivery drivers so that they can obtain their required commercial driver’s license. Although the training would arguably make an employee more effective in her position as a driver, the program is of general applicability and corresponds to courses offered by other entities in accordance with the requirements of the state licensing division. Moreover, while the employee’s receipt of the license is mandatory, the employer’s training program is non-mandatory, as it is simply one means of achieving the required documentation.

Consequently, as long as the training offered by the employer corresponds to the requirements outlined by the state licensing division, an employee’s attendance at the employer-sponsored program would not be compensable.

iv. What type of work performed during training constitutes “productive work”?

The DOL defines “productive work” as any work that an employer is able to use for business purposes.

Therefore, so long as an employer does not permit an employee to actually perform work that could benefit it during the training session (as opposed to simply learning to perform such work), an employee would not be considered to have performed productive work during the training.

Conclusion

Although the FLSA creates a presumption in favor of compensation for training sessions, there are many instances in which an employer is not required to pay employees for such time. As a result, employers should consistently evaluate their policies and practices regarding their training sessions to ensure they are not compensating employees for time when there is no obligation to do so.