On January 24, 2019, Governor Cuomo’s office issued a press release announcing a new proposal to be included in the 2020 Executive Budget aimed at cracking down on wage theft and bolstering the State’s efforts to hold accountable employers who attempt to improperly withhold wages. This proposal would increase the criminal penalties for employers who either knowingly or intentionally commit wage theft violations to bring them in line with other forms of theft.

Presently, only employers who commit repeated wage theft can be prosecuted with a felony. The proposed legislation will amend the New York Labor Law to provide for criminal penalties for employers who knowingly steal wages, with criminal penalties ranging from a Class B misdemeanor for wage theft less than $1,000 to a Class B felony for wage theft exceeding $50,000. Notable effects of the proposal will be the enhancement of the New York State Department of Labor’s ability to make referrals for criminal prosecution to District Attorneys and the Attorney General, as well as the increased likelihood that wage theft violations will be prosecuted as crimes. In addition, the enhanced penalties may deter employers and thus reduce future occurrences of wage theft.

On January 15, 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision in New Prime Inc. v. Oliveira, a case concerning the enforceability of arbitration agreements.

Petitioner New Prime Inc. (“New Prime”) is an interstate trucking company that engaged Dominic Oliveira to perform work as a driver pursuant to an “Independent Contractor Operating Agreement,” containing both an arbitration clause and a delegation clause giving the arbitrator authority to decide threshold questions of arbitrability.

Oliveira filed a putative class action against New Prime in federal court in Massachusetts alleging failure to pay truck drivers minimum wage pursuant to the Fair Labor Standards Act and Missouri and Maine labor laws. New Prime filed a motion to compel arbitration under Section 4 of the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”). In response, Oliveira argued that New Prime cannot compel arbitration because Section 1 of the FAA excludes “contracts of employment of . . . seamen, railroad employees, or any other class of workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce,” commonly known as the transportation workers exclusion.

The district court determined that although the parties agreed to arbitrate gateway questions of arbitrability, the applicability of the transportation worker exclusion is not a question of arbitrability that the parties may delegate to an arbitrator. The court concluded that the exclusion does not extend to independent contractors and therefore ordered the parties to conduct discovery as to whether Oliveira was an independent contractor or an employee.

On appeal, the First Circuit agreed that applicability of the transportation worker exclusion is an “antecedent determination” that must be made by the court before arbitration can be compelled under the FAA. However, the First Circuit overturned the district court’s holding that the exclusion does not apply to independent contractors, relying on the ordinary meaning of the statutory phrase “contracts of employment” at the time Congress enacted the FAA.

The Supreme Court focused on two legal issues:

  1. Should a court determine whether a Section 1 exclusion to the FAA applies before ordering arbitration where the parties’ contract contains a delegation clause?
  2. Does the transportation worker exclusion apply to independent contractors as well as employees?

The Court answered both inquiries in the affirmative. On the question of arbitrability, the Court reasoned that courts do not have limitless power to compel arbitration of all private contracts. Rather, Section 2 of the FAA states that such power is limited to arbitration agreements involving commerce or maritime transactions, which is informed by Section 1. Thus, in order to properly assert its power to compel arbitration, a court must first determine whether the FAA applies to the contract at issue. The Court rejected the proposition that courts are barred from making this threshold determination when the parties’ contract contains a delegation clause, emphasizing that a delegation clause is “merely a specialized type of arbitration agreement,” enforceable only to the extent that the “involving commerce” requirement under Section 2 of the FAA is satisfied and the exclusion under Section 1 is inapplicable.

On the merits of the New Prime’s Section 1 challenge, the Court looked to the meaning of “contracts of employment” as that phrase was used at the time the FAA was adopted in 1925. The Court sought to avoid ascribing new meaning to “old statutory terms” in a way that would effectively and improperly amend legislation. The Court looked at dictionary entries from the time for this phrase and, in finding none, concluded that the phrase was not a term of art and was construed broadly to cover any “work,” not just work in a formal employer-employee relationship. The Court found further support for this conclusion in early twentieth-century case law and statutes that construe this phrase to cover work agreements involving independent contractors. The Court also noted that Section 1’s statutory text also includes—in close proximity to the phrase “contract of employment”—the term “workers” (i.e., “workers engaged in interstate commerce”). Finally, the Court refused to stray from the statutory text in favor of indiscriminately enforcing the policy behind the FAA, concluding that even a liberal federal policy favoring arbitration agreements has limits, and that courts must respect such limits.

While the New Prime decision is being heralded by some as a great victory to employees, likely because it is the first Supreme Court decision in years to ultimately reject a claim for arbitration, its impact on employers and employees appears to be rather limited in scope. First, the Court took no position as to whether Oliveira was an independent contractor or an employee, as Oliveira assumed for purposes of appeal that his contract established only an independent contractor relationship. Second, the Court did not affirmatively find that Oliveira qualified as a “worker[] engaged in . . . interstate commerce,” as again, the parties did not dispute this point. Third, the Court declined to address New Prime’s argument that courts have inherent authority to stay litigation in favor of the alternative dispute resolution of parties’ voluntary agreement.

Most importantly, the Court’s decision in no way broadens the transportation workers exclusion to cover workers in other industries. The decision does not curtail earlier rulings in which the Court construed Section 1’s language “any other class of workers engaged in . . . commerce” as excluding from the FAA only contracts of employment of transportation workers. Nothing in New Prime suggests that the Court would now deviate from this position. Although there is no longer a distinction between employee and independent contractor for purposes of Section 1, New Prime does not allow all contractors to suddenly bypass arbitration and vindicate their rights in court because this exception is limited to transportation workers.

The Court’s decision resolves only questions of federal law, meaning that courts presented in the future with arbitration agreements involving transportation workers will need to determine the enforceability of the agreements under state law. This issue will turn on state arbitration statutes, as well as contract law, public policy, and other considerations. Significant variation by jurisdiction seems likely.

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.

On December 7, 2018, Governor Andrew M. Cuomo signed into law an amendment to New York Labor Law (“NYLL”) Section 193 (“NY Wage Deduction Law”) extending the NY Wage Deduction Law, which had expired on November 6, 2018, until November 6, 2020.

Introduced in 2012, the NY Wage Deduction Law amended the NYLL to permit employers to make certain deductions from the wages of their employees, including deductions for accidental overpayments, salary advances (including advances of vacation time), and insurance premiums. The NY Wage Deduction Law also introduced rules regulating the scope and limitations on such deductions, as well as the required authorization that employers must obtain from employees prior to making a deduction.

Additional information about the regulations pertaining to wage deductions under the NY Wage Deduction Law is provided in Epstein Becker Green’s Act Now Advisory titled “New York Wage Deduction Rules Extended for Three Years.”

Read the full Advisory online.

On December 4, 2018, New York City’s Taxi and Limousine Commission (“TLC”) voted to require ride-hailing companies operating in New York City to compensate its drivers who are treated as independent contractors, and not employees, on a per-minute and –mile payment formula, which will result in a $17.22 per hour wage floor.

This new rule is scheduled to take effect on December 31, 2018.

This new minimum wage for independent contractor drivers who operate vehicles on behalf of ride-hailing companies – including Uber, Lyft, Via, and Juno – will surpass the new $15 minimum wage for many New York City-based employees, which will also take effect on December 31, 2018.

This appears to be the first time a government entity has imposed wage rules on privately owned ride-hailing companies.

The main reason for this new requirement is that independent contractor drivers are often required to cover their own expenses that affects their hour wages.

Prior to this rule, ride-hailing app-based drivers were reportedly paid an average of $11.90 per hour (after deducting expenses), which resulted in drivers complaining of severe financial hardship. According to TLC Chair Meera Joshi, this rule would increase driver earnings by an average of $10,000 a year. Joshi also stated that traditional yellow taxicab drivers already earn on average at least $17.22 per hour pursuant to separate regulations.

The wage requirement is expected to have far-reaching repercussions, including:

  • Fare hikes by Uber that may result in customers using New York City yellow taxicabs and Boro Taxis, particularly given the rise of apps that allow riders to hail taxis from their phones, similar to Uber, Lyft, Via, and Juno.
  • Passage of similar minimum wage protections in other locales with a large population of ride-hailing drivers, such as San Francisco.
  • To avoid paying the higher wage prescribed by the rule, Uber, Lyft, Via, and Juno may consider reclassifying their for-hire vehicle drivers as employees, as the new minimum wage rule applies only to drivers who are independent contractors. However, it is anticipated that these companies will conclude that the others costs of employing drivers, such as providing employee benefits, would outweigh the costs of paying drivers the newly instituted minimum wage.

Effective December 31, 2018, New York State’s salary basis threshold for exempt executive and administrative employees[1] will increase again, as a part of amendments to the minimum wage orders put in place in 2016.[2] Employers must increase the salaries of employees classified as exempt under the executive and administrative exemptions by the end of the year to maintain these exemptions.

The increases to New York’s salary basis threshold for the executive and administrative exemptions will take effect as follows:

Employers in New York City 

  • Large employers (11 or more employees)
    • $1,125.00 per week ($58,500 annually) on and after 12/31/18
  • Small employers (10 or fewer employees)
    • $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

  • $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 and Nassau, Suffolk, and Westchester Counties

  • $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

What New York Employers Should Do Now

  • Review executive and administrative exempt positions in New York State with salaries below the stated thresholds to determine whether (a) the employee’s salary should be increased or (b) the employee’s position should be reclassified as non-exempt.
    • For executive and administrative employees remaining exempt, increase their salaries to the new threshold based on their primary work location as of the December 31, 2018, effective date.
    • For employees reclassified to non-exempt, ensure that all of their work time is accurately recorded as of December 31, 2018.
  • Consider establishing procedures to track and update the weekly salaries for employees who work in different locations within New York State.
  • Conduct a regular review of primary duties tests for the executive, administrative, and professional exemptions because meeting the salary threshold alone does not confer exempt status upon employees.

Download a PDF of this Advisory.

_______________

[1] New York law does not contain a salary threshold for employees who meet the duties requirements of the professional exemption.

[2] See Epstein Becker Green’s prior Act Now Advisory titled “New York State Department of Labor Implements New Salary Basis Thresholds for Exempt Employees.”

In 2018, we have seen important new wage and hour developments unfolding on a seemingly weekly basis. To help you stay up to date and out of the crosshairs of the plaintiffs’ bar, we invite you to join Epstein Becker Green’s Employment, Labor & Workforce Management Webinar Series presentation for September. Presented by our Wage and Hour practice group, this webinar will focus on wage and hour developments affecting the hospitality and home health care industries, although much of the information will also be of interest to employers in other industries.

With an eye toward the hospitality industry, the key issues we plan to cover include:

  • New statutory and regulatory changes affecting tip pooling and sharing, as well as required notice to employees
  • Litigation risks presented by service charges
  • New York’s requirements concerning spread-of-hours and call-in pay

For home health care businesses, we will focus on these topics:

  • The emerging case law on 24-hour sleep time
  • How to track hours worked, especially for employees previously viewed as exempt
  • Whether to classify workers as “employees” or “independent contractors”

Thursday, September 13, 2018

1:00 p.m. – 2:30 p.m. ET

Register for this complimentary webinar today!

Last Friday, the Department of Labor (“DOL”) issued Field Assistance Bulletin No. 2018-4 to help guide the DOL Wage and Hour Division field staff as to the correct classification of home care, nurse, or caregiver registries under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”). This is the most recent piece of guidance on a topic first addressed by the DOL in a 1975 Opinion Letter. The bulletin is noteworthy in two respects. First, it confirms that the DOL continues to view a registry that simply refers caregivers to clients but controls no terms or conditions of the caregiver’s employment activities as outside the purview of the FLSA. Second, and most helpfully, the bulletin provides specific examples of common registry business practices that may establish the existence of an employment relationship under the FLSA.

The following chart summarizes the DOL’s position on a number of common registry business practices, with the caveat that no one factor is dispositive to determining whether a registry is an employer of a caregiver under the FLSA.

Indicative of Employment Relationship Not Indicative of Employment Relationship
Background

Checks

Interviewing the prospective caregiver or the caregiver’s references to evaluate subjective criteria of interest to the registry Performing basic background checks of caregivers (e.g., collecting the caregiver’s criminal history, credit report, licensing, and other credentials)
Hiring and Firing Controlling hiring and firing decisions by, e.g., interviewing or selecting the caregiver or firing the caregiver for failing to meet the standards of the registry or industry Inability to hire or fire employees
Scheduling/

Assigning Work

Scheduling and assigning work to specific caregivers (i.e., a subset of qualified caregivers) based on the registry’s own discretion and judgment rather than the client’s Providing client access to vetted caregivers who meet client’s stated criteria; requesting all qualified caregivers contact a particular client if they are interested in working for the client
Scope of Caregiver’s Work Controlling the caregiver’s services/behavior, including but not limited to restricting a caregiver’s ability to work with other referral services or work directly with clients outside the registry Seeking information concerning the type of care needed by the client for matching purposes
Caregiver’s Pay Rate Receiving fees from a client on an on-going basis based on the numbers of hours that a caregiver works for the client or some other arrangement Receiving a one-time referral fee
Fees for Caregiver Services Directly setting the caregiver’s pay rate Communicating general market/typical pay rates or relaying offers/counteroffers to the client
Caregiver Wages Paying the caregiver directly Performing payroll services, provided that the client provides funds directly or via an escrow account
Tracking of Caregiver Hours Actively creating and verifying time records Performing payroll services after client/caregiver submits time records
Caregiver Equipment/

Supplies

Investing in equipment or supplies for a caregiver or the caregiver’s training or licenses Investing in office space, payroll software, timekeeping systems, and other products to operate a registry business; providing caregivers the option to purchase discounted equipment or supplies from either the registry or a third party
Receipt of EINs or 1099s N/A Requiring an Employment Identification Number or issuing a caregiver an IRS 1099 form

The issuance of this field assistance bulletin indicates a commitment by the DOL to clarify the employment relationship between caregivers and home care, nurse, or caregiver registries, which is a positive development from the perspective of the registries. However, registries should promptly review their business practices, as the Wage and Hour Division, now armed with this guidance, may be more inclined to fight misclassification in this industry.

Our colleagues Jeffrey H. Ruzal, Adriana S. Kosovych, and Judah L. Rosenblatt, attorneys at Epstein Becker Green, co-authored an article in Club Director, titled “Recent Trends in State and Local Wage and Hour Laws.”

Following is an excerpt:

As the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) appears to have relaxed its employee protective policy-making and enforcement efforts that grew during the Obama administration, increasingly states and localities have enacted their own, often more protective, employee-protective laws, rules and regulations. To ensure full wage and hour compliance, private clubs should consult their HR specialists and employment counsel and be mindful of all state and local requirements in each jurisdiction in which they operate and employ workers. Here are just some of the recent wage and hour requirements that have gained popularity among multiple jurisdictions.

Click here to download the full version in PDF format.

On April 12, 2018, the Wage and Hour Division of the U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”) issued the first Opinion Letters since the Bush administration, as well as a new Fact Sheet.  The Obama administration formally abandoned Opinion Letters in 2010, but Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta has restored the practice of issuing these guidance documents.  Opinion Letters, as Secretary Acosta states in the DOL’s April 12 press release, are meant to explain “how an agency will apply the law to a particular set of facts,” with the goal of increasing employer compliance with the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) and other laws.  Not only do Opinion Letters clarify the law, but pursuant to Section 10 of the Portal-to-Portal Act, they provide a complete affirmative defense to all monetary liability if an employer can plead and prove it acted “in good faith in conformity with and in reliance on” an Opinion Letter.  29 U.S.C. § 259; see also 29 C.F.R. Part 790.  For these reasons, employers should study these and all forthcoming Opinion Letters closely.

Opinion Letter FLSA2018-18 addresses the compensability of travel time under the FLSA, considering the case of hourly-paid employees with irregular work hours who travel in company-provided vehicles to different locations each day and are occasionally required to travel on Sundays to the corporate office for Monday trainings.  The Opinion Letter reaffirms the following guiding principles: First, as a general matter, time is compensable if it constitutes “work” (a term not defined by the FLSA).  Second, “compensable worktime generally does not include time spent commuting to or from work.”  Third, travel away from the employee’s home community is worktime if it cuts across the employee’s regular workday.  Fourth, “time spent in travel away from home outside of regular working hours as a passenger on an airplane, train, boat, bus, or automobile” is not worktime.

With these principles in mind, this letter provides two non-exclusive methods to reasonably determine normal work hours for employees with irregular schedules in order to make an ultimate judgment call on the compensability of travel time.  Under the first method, if a review of an employee’s hours during the most recent month of regular employment reveals typical work hours, the employer can consider those the normal hours going forward.  Under the second method, if an employee’s records do not show typical work hours, the employer can select the average start and end times for the employee’s work days.  Alternatively, where “employees truly have no normal work hours, the employer and employee … may negotiate … a reasonable amount of time or timeframe in which travel outside the employees’ home communities is compensable.”  Crucially, an employer that uses any of these methods to determine compensable travel time is entitled to limit such time to that accrued during normal work hours.

Opinion Letter FLSA2018-19 addresses the compensability of 15-minute rest breaks required every hour by an employee’s serious health condition (i.e., protected leave under the FMLA).  Adopting the test articulated by the Supreme Court in the Armourdecision—whether the break primarily benefits the employer (compensable) or the employee (non-compensable)—the letter advises that short breaks required solely to accommodate the employee’s serious health condition, unlike short, ordinary rest breaks, are not compensable because they predominantly benefit the employee.  The letter cautions, however, that employers must provide employees who take FMLA-protected breaks with as many compensable rest breakers as their coworkers, if any.

Opinion Letter CCPA2018-1NA addresses whether certain lump-sum payments from employers to employees are considered “earnings” for garnishment purposes under Title III of the Consumer Credit Protection Act (the “CCPA”).  The letter articulates the central inquiry as whether the lump-sum payment is compensation “for the employee’s services.” The letter then analyzes 18 types of lump-sum payments, concluding that commissions, bonuses, incentive payments, retroactive merit increases, termination pay, and severance pay, inter alia, are earnings under the CPA, butlump-sum payments for workers’ compensation, insurance settlements for wrongful termination, and buybacks of company shares are not.

Finally, Fact Sheet #17S addresses the FLSA’s minimum wage and overtime requirement exemptions for employees who perform bona fide executive, administrative, professional, and outside sales duties (known as the “white collar exemptions”) in the context of higher education institutions.  Specifically, the letter provides guidance as to the exempt status of faculty members, including coaches, non-teacher learned professionals (e.g., CPAs, psychologists, certified athletic trainers, librarians, and postdoctoral fellows), administrative employees (e.g., admissions counselors and student financial aid officers), executive employees (e.g., department heads, deans, and directors), and student-employees (i.e., graduate teaching assistants, research assistants, and student residential assistants).  Of note, the letter confirms that the DOL is undertaking rulemaking to revise the regulations that govern the white collar exemptions.