True to its promise last year, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division (the “WHD”) continues to issue a steady stream of opinion letters designed to offer practical guidance to employers on specific wage and hour issues solicited by employers. This past week, the WHD issued two new opinion letters concerning the Fair Labor and Standards Act (“FLSA”), where one addresses an employer’s hourly pay methodology vis-à-vis the FLSA’s minimum wage requirement, and the other the ministerial exception to the FLSA. While not universally applicable, employers should consider the general principles set forth in these opinion letters, and then further research the underlying relevant regulations and the DOL’s interpretive guidance to more fully understand the basic requirements to ensure legal compliance.

Varying Average Hourly Rate:

In Opinion Letter FLSA2018-28, the WHD examined a compensation plan in which a home-health aide employer paid employee aides on an hourly basis for each of their client appointments. While the employer did not specifically pay aides for their travel time between client locations, the hourly rate they received for the client appointments was sufficiently large enough when averaged among all hours worked, including travel time, to satisfy the minimum wage requirements of the FLSA. Specifically, the employer multiplied each employee’s time with clients by his or her hourly pay rate (typically $10 per hour) and then divided the product by the employee’s total hours worked (which includes both the client time and the travel time). Employees who work over 40 hours (including travel time) in any given workweek are paid time and one-half for all time over 40 hours based on a regular rate of $10.00.

Based on these facts, the WHD concluded that this payment scheme complies with the FLSA’s minimum wage requirements, reaffirming the principle that an employee’s average hourly rate can vary from workweek to workweek as long as it exceeds the FLSA’s minimum wage requirements for all hours worked. On the issue of overtime pay, however, the WHD cautioned that the employer’s compensation plan may not comply with the FLSA because the employer assumed a regular rate of $10 when, in fact, certain of its employees have actual regular rates of pay greater than $10. In other words, the regular rate cannot be arbitrarily selected; it must be based on an actual “mathematical computation.”

Ministerial Exception:

In Opinion Letter FLSA2018-29, the WHD advised that members of a Christian cooperative who share all personal property and funds and work for the organization, either in the schools, kitchens, or laundries or for two onsite non-profits that generate income for the organization, are not “employees” under the FLSA. As a preliminary matter, the WHD emphasized that the members of the cooperative do not expect to receive compensation for their services, which is the hallmark of an employment relationship.   The WHD further reasoned that the organization’s members are similar to nuns, priests, and other members of a religious order who work for church-affiliated entities, who typically fall within the FLSA’s ministerial exception. The WHD reasoned that like priests and nuns, the members of the religious cooperative share resources, gather for communal meals and worship, and provide for their own education, healthcare, and other necessities. In light of these similarities and the absence of any expectation of compensation, the WHD determined that the members of the cooperative were not employees for purposes of the FLSA.

The Opinion Letter further noted that the fact that some members work for non-profit, income-generating ventures did not alter the WHD’s conclusion. Relying on U.S. Supreme Court precedent exempting religious activities from the FLSA’s reach, the WHD explained that the members consider the work indivisible from prayer and reiterated that individuals can work for entities covered by the FLSA without being deemed employees under the FLSA.

by Jeffrey H. Ruzal

On September 17, 2013, the U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”) issued a final rule extending the federal minimum wage and overtime pay protection under the Fair Labor Standards Act (the “FLSA”) to many direct care or domestic service workers, including home health aides, personal care aides and nursing assistants. The rule will take effect on January 1, 2015.

For almost 40 years, an exemption from the minimum wage and overtime requirements of the FLSA has applied to domestic service workers employed to provide “companionship services” for an elderly person or a person with an illness, injury, or disability.

Under the new rule, direct care workers employed by home care agencies and other third parties will no longer be exempt from the minimum wage and overtime requirements. Individual workers who are employed directly by the person or family receiving companionship services will remain exempt under the FLSA.

Furthermore, the tasks that comprise “companionship services” are now more clearly defined. “Companionship services,” according to the DOL, means services for the care, fellowship, and protection of persons who because of advanced age or infirmity cannot care for themselves. Such services include meal preparation, bed making, and clothes washing.

Direct care workers who perform medical or medically-related services for which training is a prerequisite are not considered companionship workers, and thus are not exempt from protection under the FLSA.

General household work can be “companionship services,” as long as it does not exceed 20% of the total weekly hours worked by the companion employee. If this 20% limit is exceeded, the employee must be paid in compliance with the minimum wage and overtime pay requirements of the FLSA.

According to the DOL’s news release, there are an estimated 1.9 million direct care workers in the United States, nearly all of whom are currently employed by home care agencies.

By Dean Silverberg, Evan Spelfogel, Peter Panken, Douglas Weiner, and Donald Krueger

Reversing its prior stance, the U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”) proposes to extend the minimum wage and overtime requirements of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) to domestic workers who provide in-home care services to the elderly and infirm. See Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to Amend the Companionship and Live-In Worker Regulations. In 1974, when domestic service workers were first included in FLSA coverage, the DOL published regulations that provided an exemption for such “companions”, whether employed directly by the families of the elderly and infirm, or by a third party employer/staffing agency. Now, heeding calls from organized labor and certain members of Congress, the DOL is moving to close this “loophole.” See“Is the Department of Labor Considering a Revision to the Domestic Service Exemption for Home Health Care Aides?” .

Specifically, the proposed rule would eliminate the exemption for third-party employers, like service staffing agencies, even if the employee is jointly employed by the staffing agency and the family. The new proposal if implemented, would likely drive up costs for families who wish to care for their elderly and infirm at home.

The change would be particularly onerous for Home Health Agencies if it is deemed to be merely a correction of a “misinterpretation” and given retroactive effect. This could lead to claims of past liability for extra overtime compensation for Home Health Agencies that had relied on the Department of Labor’s prior interpretation. The DOL’s prior interpretation, exempting third party employers and staffing agencies from FLSA overtime requirements had been upheld by the United States Supreme Court in the Coke case.

The change in the federal DOL’s interpretation could also affect State Wage Hour Regulations (like New York). These provide favorable treatment for employers of employees who are exempt under the FLSA.

The public has been invited to comment on the proposed new rule. Potentially adversely affected employers may use the public comment period to point out the impropriety of the proposed change after thirty five years of consistent industry wide application of the current rule. Employers might also point out that an unintended effect of the changed rule may be to force the care of the elderly and infirm from their homes to an institutional setting, such as a nursing home or assisted care facility.