Because of concerns about employee theft, many employers have implemented practices whereby employees are screened before leaving work to ensure they are not taking merchandise with them.  While these practices are often implemented in retail stores, other employers use them as well when employees have access to items that could be slipped into a bag or a purse.

Over the last several years, the plaintiffs’ bar has brought a great many class actions and collective actions against employers across the country, alleging that hourly employees are entitled to be paid for the time they spend waiting to have their bags inspected when leaving work.  These lawsuits are often referred to as “bag check” cases.

While the Supreme Court’s decision in Integrity Staffing Solutions, Inc. v. Busk largely put an end to these cases under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), it did not do so under California law.  That is because of a critical difference between the FLSA and California law.  Unlike the FLSA, California law requires that employees be paid for all time when they are “subject to the control of the employer” or for all time that they are “suffered or permitted to work.”  And, not surprisingly, plaintiffs’ lawyers in California have argued that employees are “subject to the control of the employer” and “suffered” to work while they wait for and participate in security screenings.

In defending against these claims, not only do employers often argue that each employee’s experience differs such that class certification would be inappropriate, but they frequently argue that the time spent in “bag checks” is so small as to be de minimis – and, therefore, not compensable.

Courts throughout the country have recognized the principle that small increments of time are not compensable, including the United States Supreme Court.

In a class action in the Northern District of California where a class had been certified, Nike argued that the time its employees spent in “bag check” was de minimis.  And the Court agreed, awarding it summary judgment.

In Rodriguez v. Nike Retail Services, Inc., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 147762 (N.D. Cal. Sept. 12, 2017), the district court certified a class of all Nike non-exempt retail store employees since February 2010.  But in certifying the class, the Court specifically held that, “whether time spent undergoing exit inspections is de minimis is a common issue.  ‘That is, if the time is compensable at all, an across-the-board rule, such as sixty seconds, might wind up being the de minimis threshold.’”

Seizing on that holding, Nike commissioned a time and motion study.  That study revealed that an average inspection takes no more than 18.5 seconds.  Nike argued that such time was de minimis.  The Court agreed.

In reaching its conclusion, the Court found that the average inspection time was minimal, employees did not regularly engage in compensable activities during inspections, and it would have been administratively difficult for Nike to record the exit inspections.

The plaintiffs have already filed an appeal from the order granting summary judgment against them.

Overtime Clock Faces - Abstract PhotoBarring some unexpected development or a last-minute injunction in one of the lawsuits challenging the new Department of Labor overtime rules, the new salary thresholds for white collar exemptions will go into effect on December 1, 2016.

That, of course, is now less than two weeks away.

We have written at length about those new rules, as well as the critical decisions that employers will need to make to comply with them:

  • Whether to increase employees’ salaries to meet the new thresholds;
  • Whether to reclassify employees as non-exempt and begin to pay them hourly rates, plus overtime;
  • What hourly rates to set for reclassified employees so as not to pay them more than employers intend – or less; and
  • How these decisions will impact other employees and the employers’ salary structures.

Hopefully, most employers have already addressed these issues internally and will be prepared to comply with the new rules on or before December 1, 2016.

But for those who have not, the clock is ticking, and waiting to address these issues until after December 1, 2016 could lead to potential claims that might be exceedingly difficult to defend.

Time Is Running Out for Employers to Make Important Decisions to Comply with New DOL Overtime Exemption RuleIn May, the Department of Labor (“DOL”) announced its final rule to increase the minimum salary for white collar exemptions.  With little more than two months to go before that new rule takes effect on December 1, 2016, employers still have time to decide how to address those otherwise exempt employees whose current salaries would not satisfy the new rule by either increasing their salaries or converting them to non-exempt status.

But some of those decisions may not be easy ones.  And they may create some unexpected challenges, both financially and operationally.

New Salary Thresholds

Effective December 1, 2016, the salary threshold for the executive, administrative, and professional exemption will effectively double, increasing from $23,660 ($455 per week) to $47,476 ($913 per week).

The total annual compensation requirement for “highly compensated employees” subject to a minimal duties test will also increase from $100,000 to $134,004. The salary basis test will be amended to allow employers to use non-discretionary bonuses and incentive payments, such as commissions, to satisfy up to 10 percent of the salary threshold.  And the salary threshold for the white collar exemptions will automatically update every three years to “ensure that they continue to provide useful and effective tests for exemption.”

Impact Upon Compensation Structures

For otherwise exempt employees whose compensation already satisfy the new minimum salaries, nothing need be done to comply with the new DOL rule.  But that does not mean that those employees will not be affected by the new rule.

If employers are raising the salaries of other employees to comply with the new thresholds, it could create operational or morale issues for those whose salaries are not being adjusted.

Take, for instance, an otherwise exempt senior manager who currently earns $48,000 per year.  Her salary need not be adjusted to comply with the new rule.

But if she is higher in the  organizational hierarchy than a manager who currently earns $36,000 per year, and if that lower-level manager is given a salary increase to meet the new $47,476 threshold, it is not difficult to see how there could be an issue with the senior manager.  The senior manager would now earn only a little more each year than the manager who falls beneath her in the hierarchy.

If the employer then adjusts her salary – and everyone else’s – to maintain its compensation structure, the impact of increasing the salary of a single manager to comply with the new rule will not be just the amount of the increase in his salary to meet the new threshold; it will be the increases in all of the salaries that it triggers.

That is but one example.  It is not difficult to conceive of situations where complying with the rule by only addressing the compensation of those who fall below the threshold would result in a lower level employee leapfrogging over a higher level employee in terms of compensation, or where it results in unwanted salary compression.

And that is to say nothing of the impact that salary shifts could have upon any analysis of whether the new compensation structure adversely affects individuals in protected categories.  In the example above, the female senior manager who is now being paid only several hundred dollars per year more than the lower-level male manager might well raise a concern about gender discrimination if her salary is not also adjusted.

Impact of Increasing Salaries

For otherwise exempt employees who currently do not earn enough to satisfy the new minimum salary thresholds, employers have two choices: increase the salary to satisfy the new threshold or convert the employee to non-exempt status.

Some of those decisions may be relatively simple, particularly when viewed in a vacuum, but some may be more difficult.

If an otherwise exempt employee currently earns a salary of $47,000 per year, the employer may have an easy decision to give the employee a raise of at least $476 to satisfy the new threshold.

And if any employee currently earns $24,000 per year, an employer may have an easy decision to convert the employee to non-exempt status rather than give the employee a raise of more than $20,000.

But what about the employee earning $40,000 per year?  Should that employee be given a raise of more than $7,000 or should she be converted to non-exempt status?  It is not difficult to see how one employer would choose to give an employee a $7,000 raise while another would choose to convert that employee to non-exempt status.

And what if the amount of an increase seems small, but it would have a large impact because of the number of employees affected?  A salary increase of $5,000 for a single employee to meet the new salary threshold may not have a substantial impact upon many employers.  But what if the employer would need to give that $5,000 increase to 500 employees across the country to maintain their exempt status?  Suddenly, maintaining the exemption would carry a $2,500,000 price tag.  And that is not a one-time cost; it is an annual one that would likely increase as the salary threshold is updated.

Impact of Reclassifying an Employee As Non-Exempt

If an employer decides to convert an employee to non-exempt status, it faces a new challenge – setting the employee’s hourly rate.

If the employer “reverse engineers” an hourly rate by just taking the employee’s salary and assuming the employee works 52 weeks a year and 40 hours each week, it will result in the employee earning the same amount as before so long as she does not work any overtime.  The employee will earn more than she did before if she works any overtime at all.  And if she works a significant amount of overtime, the reclassification to non-exempt status could result in the employee earning significantly more than she earned before as an exempt employee.  If she worked 10 hours of overtime a week, she would effectively receive a 37% increase in compensation as a result of her reclassification.

But calculating the employee’s new hourly rate based on an expectation that she will work more overtime than is realistic would result in the employee earning less than she did before.  If, for instance, the employer calculated an hourly rate by assuming that the employee would work 10 hours of overtime each week, and if she worked less than that, she would earn less annually than she did before – perhaps significantly less. That, of course, could lead to a severe morale issue – or to the unwanted departure of a valued employee.

In calculating the new hourly rate for employees they are reclassifying, employers should be careful to do so based upon realistic expectations of the overtime each of those employees will work such that it does not end up paying them significantly more – or significantly less – than they intend.

Whatever employers decide to do, the December 1, 2016, deadline is getting closer each day.

Overtime Clock Faces - Abstract PhotoNearly a year after the Department of Labor (“DOL”) issued its Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to address an increase in the minimum salary for white collar exemptions, the DOL has announced its final rule, to take effect on December 1, 2016.

While the earlier notice had indicated that the salary threshold for the executive, administrative, and professional exemption would be increased from $23,660 ($455 per week) to $50,440 ($970 per week), the final rule will not raise the threshold that far.  Instead, it will raise it to $47,476 ($913 per week).

According to the DOL’s Fact Sheet, the final rule will also do the following:

  • The total annual compensation requirement for “highly compensated employees” subject to a minimal duties test will increase from the current level of $100,000 to $134,004, which represents the 90th percentile of full-time salaried workers nationally.
  • The salary threshold for the executive, administrative, professional, and highly compensated employee exemptions will automatically update every three years to “ensure that they continue to provide useful and effective tests for exemption.”
  • The salary basis test will be amended to allow employers to use non-discretionary bonuses and incentive payments, such as commissions, to satisfy up to 10 percent of the salary threshold.
  • The final rule does not in any way change the current duties tests.

While it is certainly good news for employers that the duties tests will not be augmented and that non-discretionary bonuses and other incentive payments can be used to partially contribute to the salary threshold, the increase to the salary threshold is expected to extend the right to overtime pay to an estimated 4.2 million workers who are currently exempt.

With the benefit of more than six months until the final rule takes effect, employers should not delay in auditing their workforces to identify any employees currently treated as exempt who will not meet the new salary threshold. For such persons, employers will need to determine whether to increase workers’ salaries or convert them to non-exempt.

By: Marisa S. Ratinoff

Exempt or non-exempt: That is the question. One of the most difficult areas in wage and hour law for retailers is properly classifying their managerial employees for purposes of determining if overtime need be paid or meal and rest breaks provided. Long has been the rule that the actual duties the employee performs will determine if he or she is misclassified. While this is often frustrating to retailers, whose assessment of an individual’s job duties may be a judgment call as to whether they meet or do not meet the specific requirements of an exemption, the fact that an individual analysis is required may prevent class certification.

The California Court of Appeal just affirmed a trial court’s denial of class certification for Sears, Roebuck and Co.’s managers and assistant managers, holding too many individualized issues existed for the misclassification claims to be resolved on a class wide basis. While the employees’ job descriptions may provide a uniform basis for class-wide resolution, the required assessment of each manager’s or assistant manager’s actual job duties did not.

Accurate job descriptions are critical but equally as important, and what often gets neglected, is understanding the duties the employee actually performs. The employee’s actual duties will determine the outcome of a single plaintiff’s misclassification claim and provide a defense to class-wide misclassification claims.

By Adam Abrahms

Outside of California, employers frequently enter into agreements with non-exempt salaried employees that provide for a set weekly salary that includes overtime for a specific number of hours and is based on a defined regular rate of pay.  For example, an employer may agree to pay an employee as salary of $950 a week for 45 hours of work resulting in the employee being paid $20/hour for the first 40 hours and time and half ($30) for the overtime hours.  These agreements typically provide that if an employee works more than the established hours, the employee would be paid additional overtime pay for each hour worked.  If an employee works fewer the hours specified, he or she is generally still guaranteed the full weekly salary, including the built-in overtime.

Such agreements are often referred to as Belo contracts after the US Supreme Court case Walling v. Belo, 316 U.S. 624 (1942), which validated these types of non-exempt salary agreements under federal law.  Regardless of the form such agreements, they are often viewed favorably by both employers and employees as they provide both parties predictability and consistency.

Notwithstanding the federal approval of these arrangements, the California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement has long viewed Belo contracts as contrary to California law.  See  DLSE Opinion Letter 2000.09.29.  Nevertheless, some California employers (including many in the entertainment industry) continued to use these type of non-exempt salary agreements.

Last year, a California Court of Appeal upheld a similar agreement, which seemed to indicate that it would be safe for California employers to enter into what California courts have called “explicit mutual wage agreements” with their salaried non-exempt employees.  Specifically, in validating an explicit written agreement for an employee to work 66 hours a week for a fixed weekly salary of $880 (resulting in a regular rate of $11.14 and overtime rate of $16.71), the court held that “although parties may not waive overtime protections, the law permits an employer and employee to enter into an explicit mutual wage agreement” that provides a guaranteed salary and provides for at least one and on-half times the regular rate for any overtime hours.   Arechiga v. Dolores Press, 191 Cal. App. 4th 567, 573 (2011). 

California Assembly Bill 2103 authored by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D – San Francisco) seeks to legislatively overturn Dolores Press.  The proposed law would invalidate all explicit mutual wage agreements or Belo contracts in California and would provide that any salary paid to a non-exempt employee be considered payment only for non-overtime hours (i.e. first 8 hours in any day or 40 hours in a week).  Any hours an employee works beyond 8 in a day or 40 in a week would require additional pay at time and a half the regular rate.  Under the proposed legislation, regardless of any written agreement to the contrary, the regular rate would have to be calculated by dividing the established salary by 40.  Had the proposed legislation been in effect in the Dolores Press case, the $880 a week salary Dolores Press mutually agreed upon with its employee would have resulted in the employer having to pay a total of $1,738 a week — or almost double the amount of the agreement.

AB 2103 cleared a major hurdle last week, passing the California Assembly by a 51-24 vote.  It now heads to the State Senate and, if it passes that body, to Governor Brown for signature.

If AB 2103 becomes law, it will become yet another explicit difference from federal law that employers in California will need to adapt to.  It may also require a restructuring of pay practices in the entertainment and other industries that frequently make use of “day rate” or “weekly rate” agreements that build in overtime.

By Michael Kun and Betsy Johnson

In a much-anticipated decision, the California Supreme Court has expanded the scope of California’s complex wage-hour laws to non-resident employees who perform work in California.  While the decision leaves more than a few questions unanswered, it will require a great many employers to review their overtime and other payroll practices.  Perhaps just as importantly, it will likely open the door to lawsuits, including class actions, regarding  prior overtime and payroll practices.

The case, Sullivan v. Oracle, has had a tortured history.  In the case, several Arizona and Colorado residents who were employed as instructors by Oracle, which is headquartered in California, filed suit alleging that they were entitled to overtime under California law on those occasions when they performed services in California.   Oracle had treated the instructors as exempt employees and did not pay them overtime.  Because the issue was a novel one involving interpretation of California state laws, the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal certified issues for the California State Supreme Court to decide.

As employers with operations in the state know, California law differs from the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) in many ways.  Overtime exemptions under California law are analyzed differently than under the FLSA, turning not on what an individual’s “primary” duties are, but on the duties in which they are “primarily” engaged (i.e., spending more than 50% of their time).  In addition, California law provides for daily overtime for work performed by non-exempt employees beyond 8 hours in a day, and for double time for work performed beyond 12 hours in a day.  California law also requires employers to provide meal and rest breaks to non-exempt employees.

Addressing this issue for the first time, the California Supreme Court concluded that California’s overtime laws in fact apply to those non-resident employees who travel to and perform services in California.  The Court concluded that the state overtime laws make no distinctions between residents and non-residents, and explained that it would defeat the purpose of those laws if employers could simply “import unprotected workers from other states.”

The decision is limited to “California-based” employers. However, the Court did not provide a definition for this term. As such, employers based outside California should not ignore Sullivan.  There is every reason to believe that non-resident workers of employers based outside California will contend that they, too, should be covered by California’s wage-hour laws when working in the state.  And, based on the broad language in Sullivan, there is every reason to believe the California Supreme Court might agree.

What Employers Should Do Now:

Employers should review their payroll practices for exempt and non-exempt employees, to avoid running afoul of Sullivan and California wage-hour laws when sending employees to work in California.  Among other things:

  • When sending employees classified as “exempt” to California, employers will want to determine whether those individuals are properly classified as “exempt” under California law and, if not, treat them as non-exempt employees during those periods of time when they are working in California 
  • When sending “non-exempt” employees to California, employers will want to ensure that they treat those employees in compliance with California wage-hour laws, including providing daily overtime and complying with California meal and rest break laws
  • When sending “non-exempt” employees to California, employers will also want to ensure that they are complying with California law requiring payment for travel time.  Indeed, the Sullivan decision would suggest that while “non-exempt” employees traveling to California for work will need to be compensated for their travel time in accordance with California law as soon as they reach the California border – a tricky issue, to say the least, particularly for employees traveling by air. 

The following is a reprint of a client alert authored by EBG attorneys Doug Weiner and Frank Morris, Jr.  It should be of interest to all Florida employers that are considering a reduction in force.

For many employers, these are desperate economic times. Every entity facing diminished revenue must consider cost cuts to survive. As news reports show, reductions in force (RIFs) are being used daily to achieve cost savings, and for some employers they may be the best solution. In some cases, however, the savings are not immediate as a result of statutorily required or voluntary notice periods, as well as costs of severance pay.

A different approach may be a furlough strategy, customized to fit each employer’s needs, which may also achieve a significant cost-savings benefit. Implementing a furlough can help retain the employer’s experienced workforce at a reduced cost, to help the enterprise weather the economic crisis. Most employees faced with, for example, the choice of a 20 percent annual pay reduction or the loss of their job would not hesitate to choose a reduction in pay. Further, both employers and employees taking advantage of a furlough program are well-positioned to take advantage of any increase in business activity in the inevitable economic recovery, whether it be this year or next. Furloughs are often viewed by the workforce more favorably than layoffs, thus preserving morale in the organization as well.

The Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) requires hourly and non-exempt salaried employees to be paid time-and-one-half their regular rate for weekly hours worked over forty. Accordingly, the first place to look for cuts in employee payroll costs is in non-exempt employee overtime pay. The FLSA was designed to give employers an incentive to spread employment from employees who work over forty weekly hours to other workers who are working fewer hours. In an environment where costs are critical, it is generally an inefficient use of payroll dollars to pay the additional wage premium required for overtime work.

Eliminating non-exempt overtime work is only the first step in reducing payroll costs among hourly non-exempt employees, salaried non-exempt employees and salaried exempt employees. Take an example in which it has been decided that in a department of 100 employees, where all three categories of employees work, that payroll expenses must be cut by 20 percent. One possibility is to reduce the department headcount by 20 percent, eliminating 20 jobs and the costs associated with them. Another possibility is to implement a mandatory furlough period with 20 percent pay cuts for all 100 employees. The furlough strategy takes more administrative time to manage properly, but it potentially saves 20 jobs while achieving the necessary cost-saving objective.

The FLSA allows employers to implement a variety of options to impose salary reductions and pay cuts, as do most state laws. A salary may be prospectively reduced without violating the “salary-basis” test of the FLSA for exempt employees, including a reduction in pay proportionate to a reduction in the number of days worked. Managers may implement furloughs and RIFs simultaneously or in a phased sequence. As with all such strategies, any applicable state and local requirements need to be determined, as federal law will defer to a state or local standard that provides a greater protection to the employee. California, as shown by the state’s decision to furlough state employees, allows furloughs to be implemented in accord with particular wage-hour requirements that must be considered.

The FLSA permits prospective adjustments to an exempt employee’s salary, including revisions to commission agreements or bonus compensation plans based on the quantity or quality of work, which do not reduce the “predetermined amount” of the employee’s salary (of course, the terms of the plans also need to be checked before changes are made). In concept, if the duties test for exemption is satisfied, the predetermined salary of, e.g., an exempt Sales Manager, could be as low as $455 per week, while the compensation the employee actually receives could be substantially higher (based upon commissions for meeting sales goals or bonuses for meeting other performance criteria). To preserve the salary basis of the exempt employee, the predetermined amount of salary would have to be paid for workweeks in which there were no commissions, or for which no bonus payments were made.

Careful strategic planning is required before implementing a furlough. Considerations include:

• Exempt salaried employees may have their salaries prospectively reduced to a lower predetermined amount so long as they stay above $455 per week. Salary adjustments may not be designed to circumvent the requirements of the FLSA.

• Hourly workers must be paid for every hour they are directed or permitted to work. Permitting “extra” work as, for example, spending more than de minimus time checking a Blackberry®, even when unauthorized, may well give rise to the obligation to pay for the time. Accordingly, managers must take the necessary steps to ensure the furlough plan realizes the necessary cost savings.

• It is a good practice to give employees clear notice specifying that no “volunteer work” is permissible and no work is to be performed unless specifically authorized by a predetermined schedule or authorization by an appropriate manager. Implementing a strict policy of prohibiting unscheduled work and having an administrative procedure to uniformly enforce the policy is well advised.

• Managers may consider asking hourly and salaried non-exempt employees for the return of employer-owned remote access devices during a furlough. Employees who access their work email accounts while on their “time off” may be working, or may start working. If they are working, even though advised not to do so, the employer may well incur wage liability, defeating the purpose of the furlough. Unauthorized work by non-exempt employees in violation of the employer’s furlough policy may generate exposure to significant wage claims. Violations of the furlough policy should be considered a serious disciplinary issue, warranting sanctions, including suspension and discharge. Withholding pay for hours actually worked, however, is not a legal option, even when the hours worked were not authorized.

• Salaries for exempt and non-exempt employees may be prospectively reduced so long as those adjustments are not so frequent as to appear designed to circumvent the requirements of the FLSA. Quarterly adjustments have been found by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit to be in compliance with the FLSA. Adjustments to the predetermined amounts of salary should be implemented as infrequently as feasible so as not to raise an argument that the adjustments are a pretext to avoid compliance with the FLSA.

In sum, properly implemented salary reductions should comply with the salary requirements of the FLSA. Although it requires strategic planning and careful implementation, employers may find many benefits by implementing an effective cost-savings furlough plan that saves money and jobs, versus the RIFs dominating the news.