Changes to the white collar exemptions under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) are coming slowly.  Very, very slowly.  Back in May 2016, under the Obama Administration, the Department of Labor issued a Final Rule updating the regulations for the FLSA’s minimum wage and overtime executive, administrative, and professional exemptions.  That rule would, among other things, have increased the minimum salary required for most employees within these exemptions from $455 a week ($23,660 a year) to $913 a week ($47,476 a year).  In November 2016, a federal judge in Texas enjoined that regulation just nine days before it was to go into effect.

In July 2017, the Department issued a Request for Information seeking public comment on a whole series of questions relating to whether and how the Department should update the existing regulations, which have been on the books since 2004.  Those questions include such topics as whether and how to revise the salary threshold, whether to differentiate salary levels based on geographic or other criteria, and whether to even have a salary requirement at all.

The Department’s semi-annual regulatory agenda indicates that the current plan is to issue a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking regarding these exemption regulations in or about January 2019.  That date has slipped before, and it may well slip again.

Apparently feeling that it does not yet have sufficient information to be able to make an informed decision about what it should say in the proposed regulations—notwithstanding the more than 214,000 comments received to date in response to the 2017 Request—the Department has announced a series of five “listening sessions” to be held in September in Atlanta, Seattle, Kansas City, Denver, and Providence.  According to the Department’s press release, “[t]he Department plans to update the Overtime Rule, and it is interested in hearing the views of participants on possible revisions to the regulations.”

Employers interested in letting their views be known to the Department in connection with this rulemaking are may register for one or more of these two-hour sessions.  There is no charge to attend, but the Department requires registration.  Given the nature of this type of gathering, it seems unlikely that the Department will provide any insights into where the rulemaking may be headed.  Instead, the purpose seems to be for the public to express its views and for the Department to take note of those views.

If you are interested in attending, please click here for the Department’s registration link.

Our colleagues , Eric I. Emanuelson, Jr. at Epstein Becker Green have a post on the Retail Labor and Employment Law blog that will be of interest to our readers: “Massachusetts “Grand Bargain” Makes Changes to Blue Laws for Retailers.”

Following is an excerpt:

A legislative bargain requires give-and-take from all stakeholders. On June 28, 2018, Massachusetts Governor Baker signed House Bill 4640, “An Act Relative to Minimum Wage, Paid Family Medical Leave, and the Sales Tax Holiday” (the “Act”). This “grand bargain” gradually raises the minimum wage, provides for paid family and medical leave, makes permanent the Commonwealth’s annual tax holiday, and phases out Sunday and holiday premium pay requirements. While Massachusetts employers must now adjust to an increased minimum wage and new paid family medical leave program, retailers with eight or more employees may see those costs mitigated by the gradual elimination of Sunday and holiday premium pay mandates. …

Read the full post here.

*Eric I. Emanuelson, Jr., is a 2018 Summer Associate at Epstein Becker Green.

Voters in the District of Columbia on June 19, 2018 approved an initiative (Initiative 77) that would incrementally increase the minimum cash wage for tipped workers to $15.00 per hour by July 1, 2025, and starting July 1, 2026 to the same amount as the then-minimum wage for all other workers, effectively eliminating the tip credit. If the initiative takes effect, the District would join seven states that do not have a separate minimum wage for tipped workers, i.e., Alaska, California, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington.

The D.C. Council previously enacted legislation raising the minimum cash wage for tipped workers to $3.33 on July 1, 2017; $3.89 on July 1, 2018; $4.45 on July 1, 2019; and $5.00 on July 1, 2020, consistent with increases in the general minimum wage to $12.50, $13.25, $14.00, and $15.00 that will take effect on the same dates. Each year thereafter, the minimum wage will increase in proportion to the annual average increase in the CPI-U for the Washington area. D.C. Code §32-10003.

The voter initiative would change the minimum cash wage for tipped workers to $4.50 on July 1, 2018; $6.00 on July 1, 2019; $7.50 on July 1, 2020; $9.00 on July 1, 2021; $10.50 on July 1, 2022; $12.00 on July 1, 2023; $13.50 on July 1, 2024; $15.00 on July 1, 2025; and to whatever the minimum wage then is for other workers on July 1, 2026. These provisions will not apply to employees of the District of Columbia, or employees performing services under contracts with the District of Columbia.

It is not yet clear whether the initiative will become law, at least it its present form. It passed by only 55 percent in an election in which turnout was only 16.7 percent. Before it becomes law, it must clear review by the D.C. Council, which could amend or overturn it. So far, the measure has faced public opposition from Mayor Muriel Bowser and a majority (eight) of the D.C. Council, as well as many restaurant owners, wait staff and bartenders, who fear it will increase direct labor costs, force staffing reductions, and significantly reduce the amount of tips received. Both the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington and the separate “Save our Tips” campaign already have stated that they will take their fight to the Council. If the Council approves the measure, it must then clear a thirty-legislative-day review period by the Congress. At best, the initiative is not likely to take effect until sometime in the fall of 2018.

In the meantime, employers currently taking the tip credit should note the increase in the minimum for tipped employees to $3.89 (and for all other employees to $13.25) taking effect on July 1, 2018. Notably, supporters of the initiative have stated that they will not seek retroactive effect of the initiative’s July 1, 2018 increase to $4.50.

[Read the update—July 16, 2018—“Proposed D.C. Council Legislation Puts Voter-Approved Elimination of Tip Credit Into Question.”]

A number of states and localities are about to implement mid-year hikes in the minimum wage. Below is a summary of the minimum wage increases (and related tipped minimum wage requirements, where applicable) that go into effect on July 1, 2018.

Current New
State Special Categories Minimum Wage Tipped Minimum Wage Minimum Wage Tipped Minimum Wage
Maryland $9.25 $3.63 $10.10 N/A
Nevada Employees with qualified

health benefits

$7.25 N/A
Employees without

health benefits

$8.25 N/A
Oregon General $10.25 $10.75
Urban (Portland Metro Urban Growth Area) $11.25 $12.00
Rural (Nonurban) $10.00 $10.50
Washington, D.C. $12.50 $3.33 $13.25 $3.89

 

Current New
Locality Categories Minimum Wage Tipped Minimum Wage Minimum Wage Tipped Minimum Wage
CA          
Belmont, CA N/A $12.50
Emeryville, CA 56 or more employees $15.20 $15.69
55 or fewer employees $14.00 $15.00
Los Angeles, CA (City) 26 or more employees $12.00 $13.25  
25 or fewer employees $10.50 $12.00  
Los Angeles, CA (County) Unincorporated areas of LA County, 26 or more employees $12.00 $13.25  
Unincorporated areas of LA County, 25 or fewer employees $10.50 $12.00  
Malibu, CA 26 or more employees $12.00 $13.25  
25 or fewer employees $10.50 $12.00  
Milpitas, CA $12.00 $13.50  
Pasadena, CA 26 or more employees $12.00 $13.25  
25 or fewer employees $10.50 $12.00  
San Francisco, CA Generally $14.00 $15.00  
Government-supported employees $12.87 $13.27  
San Leandro, CA $12.00 $13.00  
Santa Monica, CA 26 or more employees $12.00 $13.25  
25 or fewer employees $10.50 $12.00  
IL  
Chicago, IL $11.00 $6.10 $12.00 $6.25
Cook County, IL $10.00 $4.95 $11.00 $5.10
ME          
Portland, ME $10.68 $5.00 $10.90 N/A
MD
Montgomery County, MD 51 or more employees $11.50 $4.00 $12.25 N/A
11-50 employees, and provides certain home health services or is tax-exempt under 501(c)(3) $11.50 $4.00 $12.00 N/A
10 or fewer employees $11.50 $4.00 $12.00 N/A
MN
Minneapolis, MN 101 or more employees $10.00 $11.25
100 or fewer employees N/A N/A

This post was written with assistance from John W. Milani, a 2018 Summer Associate at Epstein Becker Green.

In 2012, we were proud to introduce our free wage and hour app.  Over the years, thousands of clients and potential clients have downloaded the app on their mobile phones and tablets.

For 2018, we are pleased to introduce a brand-new version of the app, available without charge for iPhoneiPad, and Android devices. See our press release here.

Importantly, the 2012 and 2014 versions of the app have been retired.  If you had downloaded them, you will need to download the new version.

The new version of the app includes wage-hour summaries for all 50 states, as well as D.C. and Puerto Rico.  And it includes updates for 2018, including new state minimum wages and tipped employee rates.

Now more than ever, we can say that the app truly makes nationwide wage-hour information available in seconds. At a time when wage-hour litigation and agency investigations are at an all-time high, we believe the app offers an invaluable resource for employers, human resources personnel, and in-house counsel.

Key features of the updated app include:

  • Summaries of wage and hour laws and regulations, including 53 jurisdictions (federal, all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico)
  • Available without charge for iPhoneiPad, and Android devices
  • Quick access to, and a direct feed of, Epstein Becker Green’s award-winning Wage and Hour Defense Blog, which provides up-to-date commentary on wage and hour developments
  • Social media feeds from Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and YouTube
  • Quick links to Epstein Becker Green’s attorneys and practices – and more!

If you haven’t done so already, we hope you will download the free app soon.  To do so, you can use these links for iPhoneiPad, and Android.

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.

Recently, a number of proposed class and collective action lawsuits have been filed on behalf of so-called “gig economy” workers, alleging that such workers have been misclassified as independent contractors. How these workers are classified is critical not only for workers seeking wage, injury and discrimination protections only available to employees, but also to employers desiring to avoid legal risks and costs conferred by employee status.  While a number of cases have been tried regarding other types of independent contractor arrangements (e.g., taxi drivers, insurance agents, etc.), few, if any, of these types of cases have made it through a trial on the merits – until now.

In Lawson v. GrubHub, Inc., the plaintiff, Raef Lawson, a GrubHub restaurant delivery driver, alleged that GrubHub misclassified him as an independent contractor in violation of California’s minimum wage, overtime, and expense reimbursement laws.  In September and October 2017, Lawson tried his claims before a federal magistrate judge in San Francisco.  After considering the evidence and the relevant law, on February 8, 2018, the magistrate judge found that, while some factors weighed in favor of concluding that Lawson was an employee of GrubHub, the balance of factors weighed against an employment relationship, concluding that he was an independent contractor.

The court’s decision was guided by the California Supreme Court’s multi-factor test set forth in S.G. Borello & Sons, Inc. v. Department of Industrial Relations, 48 Cal.3d 341 (1989), which focuses on “whether the person to whom service is rendered has the right to control the manner and means of accomplishing the result desired.”  There are also a number of secondary factors.

Among other things, the court found that Grubhub did not control how Lawson made deliveries or what his appearance was during deliveries. GrubHub also did not require Lawson to undergo any training or control when or where Lawson worked – that is, Lawson had complete control of his schedule and territory.  And, Grubhub did not control how or when Lawson delivered the restaurant orders he chose to accept.  Whereas GrubHub controlled some aspects of Lawson’s work, such as determining the rates he would be paid, the court gave those minimal weight.  On balance, the court concluded that “the right to control factor weighs strongly in favor of finding that Mr. Lawson was an independent contractor.”

The court also considered the secondary factors under the Borello test.  Some secondary factors weighed in favor of an employment relationship – for example, Lawson’s delivery work was part of GrubHub’s regular business, the type of work did not require a significant amount of skill, and Lawson was not engaged in a distinct delivery business such that GrubHub was just one of his clients.  Yet, weighing all of the factors above, the court found that “Grubhub’s lack of all necessary control over [] Lawson’s work, including how he performed deliveries and even whether or for how long,” was paramount.

Lawson is certainly a welcome decision for companies hiring independent contractors to perform a part of their regular business.  Nevertheless, the court’s emphasis on the particulars of GrubHub’s relationship with Lawson, issues regarding Lawson’s credibility and the possibility that the California Supreme Court may moot this decision in Dynamex Operations West Inc. v. Superior Court (considering whether to replace Borello with a test that would make it easier for workers to show they are employees rather than independent contractors), argued just two days before the Lawson decision, mean that such companies should continue closely examining the manner in which they classify their workers.  Moreover, although Lawson should provide some support to relationships governed by California law, its impact in other jurisdictions may be negligible.  For now, employers should continue to keep in mind that there is no one deciding factor to determine whether someone performing work for a company is an employee or an independent contractor.  A number of factors must be considered.

Federal regulations have long provided that employees whose wages are subject to a tip credit must retain all tips they receive, with the exception that customarily tipped employees — i.e. front-of the-house service employees — are permitted to share in tips received.

In 2011, the U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”) amended its tip regulations to limit tip pool participation to front-of-the-house employees regardless of whether a tip credit was applied to their wages.

Employers and hospitality industry advocacy groups reacted by filing lawsuits throughout the country challenging the DOL’s rulemaking authority to extend the scope of tip pooling restrictions to employees whose wages were not subject to a tip credit.

There is currently a circuit split over the validity of the DOL’s 2011 regulation.

In Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association v. Perez, the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit found that the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) does not expressly set forth requirements for employers that do not apply a tip credit against employees’ wages, therefore the DOL is authorized to interpret this absence in the statute through rulemaking.

In contrast, in Marlow v. The New Food Guy, Inc., the Tenth Circuit rejected the 2011 regulation, finding that the DOL is not vested with such rulemaking authority, thus employers may distribute tips to both tip-earning and non-tip-earning employees, e.g. cooks and dishwashers, to the extent a tip credit is not applied to employees’ wages.

The National Restaurant Association has requested the Supreme Court of the United States to hear an appeal of the Ninth Circuit case.  The request is currently pending.

Acknowledging that it may have exceeded its rulemaking authority and in light of the pending petition to the Supreme Court, on December 4, 2017, the DOL issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (“NPRM”) to rescind the portion of the 2011 regulation requiring tip pool compliance with respect to employees whose wages are not subject to a tip credit.  If finalized, this rule would permit employers to regulate tip pooling without restriction as long as employers do not apply a tip credit against its employees’ wages (or if employees are paid at least the current $7.25 federal minimum wage in states that maintain higher minimum wage thresholds and permit the taking of a tip credit).

In its NPRM Fact Sheet, the DOL explained that the proposed rule would allow employers to distribute customer tips to larger tip pools that include non-tipped workers, such as cooks and dishwashers, which would likely increase the earnings of those employees who are newly added to the tip pool and further incentivize them to provide good customer service.

The DOL additionally cited as a benefit greater flexibility to employers in determining pay practices for tipped and non-tipped workers, as well as a reduction in wage disparities among employees who all contribute to the customers’ experience.  Some early critics of the NPRM have voiced concern that it gives employers the unrestricted ability to retain employees’ tips, which would be antithetical to the DOL’s stated purpose for the Rule.

It is important to keep in mind, however, that even if finalized, the NPRM would not preempt state or local laws or regulations that provide for more expansive employee rights regarding tip pooling.  For example, the NPRM would not result in any change in New York under its current regulations, which prohibit tip sharing with back-of-the-house employees.

The NPRM is currently subject to a 30-day comment period with a January 4, 2018 deadline, pursuant to which the DOL will review and consider all comments received before publishing the rule in its final form in the federal register.

In the interim, employers should review and determine whether it is feasible — and, if so, advantageous — to adjust its employees’ wage rates (including increasing front-of-the-house employees’ wage rates to the $7.25 minimum wage threshold or decreasing back-of-the-house employees’ wage rates to the federal minimum wage) and abandon the tip credit to allow for unrestricted tip pooling among all employees.  In addition to considering the potential economic benefits, employers should also consider the potential employee relations concerns in making any such adjustments, including the possibility that employees’ total compensation may decrease on account of any such potential changes.

Montgomery County, Maryland, where the minimum wage already is $11.50, is set to join two states (California and New York), the neighboring District of Columbia and at least six local jurisdictions (Flagstaff (Arizona), Los Angeles, Minneapolis, San Francisco, San Jose, SeaTac and Seattle) that have enacted legislation increasing the minimum wage for some or all private sector employees to $15 over the next several years.

On November 7, 2017 the Montgomery County Council unanimously passed Bill 28-17, which increases the minimum wage for “large employers” — those with 51 or more employees in the county — to $15.00 by July 1, 2021, with intermediate increases to $12.25 on July 1, 2018, $13.00 on July 1, 2019, and $14.00 on July 1, 2020.

The bill also increases the minimum wage to $15.00 by July 1, 2023 for “mid-sized employers,” those who (1) employ 11 to 50 employees; (2) have tax exempt status under IRC Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code; or (3) provide “home health services” or “home or community based services,” as defined under federal Medicaid regulations and receive at least 75% of gross revenues through state and federal medical programs.

The bill additionally increases the minimum wage to $15.00 by July 1, 2024 for “small employers” — those with 10 or fewer employee (including non-profits and Medicaid funded home health and home or community based service providers of that size) — with intermediate increases to $12.00 on July 1, 2018, $12.50 on July 1, 2019, $13.00 on July 1, 2020, $13.50 on July 1, 2020, $14.00 on July 1, 2022 and $14.50 on July 1, 2023.

Notably, the rates of increases  is considerably slower than in the neighboring District of Columbia, which is already at $12.50 and will reach $15.00 on July 1, 2020 for all private sector employers.

In addition, the bill includes an “opportunity wage” that allows payment of a wage equal to 85% of the County minimum wage to an employee under the age of 20 for the first six months of employment.

The bill further adopts provisions to automatically adjust the minimum wage rate (1) for large employers annually starting July 1, 2022 to reflect average increases in the CPI-W for Washington-Baltimore for the previous year, and (2) for mid-sized and small employers starting July 1, 2024 and 2025, respectively, to reflect the same CPI-W increase for the previous year, plus one percent of the previous year’s required minimum wage, up to a total increase of $0.50, until the rate is equal to the amount for large employers. An employer’s size is calculated as of the time it first becomes subject to the law, and it remains subject to the applicable schedule regardless of the number of employees employed in subsequent years.

In addition, the Director of Finance must make certifications by January 31 of each year from 2018 through 2022 regarding certain reductions in county private employment, negative growth in the gross domestic product, or whether the U.S. economy is in recession. If certain targets are for that year, for no more than two times.

The bill specifically addresses concerns the County Executive expressed in vetoing a prior version of the bill that passed by a narrow majority in January 2017, by postponing the prior effective dates for large and small employers by one and two years, respectively; increasing from 26 to 51 the number of employees required to be a larger employer; creating a new mid-size employer category of 11 to 50 employees and defining a small employer as one with ten or fewer employees; and adding non-profits and Medicaid funded home health and home health services providers with more than ten employees to the extended schedule for mid-size employers. The County Executive has stated that he will sign the bill.

Notably, it is likely that an effort will be made in the upcoming state legislative session to further increase the state minimum wage, already at $9.25 and set to go to $10.10 on July 1, 2018.

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.