In many industries, sales are subject to ebbs and flows.  Sometimes the fish are biting; sometimes they aren’t.

A common device that employers with commissioned salespeople use to take the edge off of the slow weeks and to ensure compliance with minimum wage and overtime laws is the recoverable draw.  Under such a system, an employee who earns below a certain amount in commissions for a given period of time, often a week, receives an advance of as-yet unearned commissions to bring the employee’s earnings for the period up to a specified level.  Then in the next period, the employees’ commissions pay off the draw balance before the employee receives further payouts of commissions.  Occasionally, employees challenge these recoverable draw pay systems.

In Stein v. hhgregg, Inc., the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit considered one such draw system.  The employer, a retail seller of appliances, furniture, and electronics at more than 220 stores nationwide, paid its salespeople entirely in commissions.  In weeks where an employee worked 40 or fewer hours and did not earn commissions sufficient to cover minimum wage for the week, the employee would receive a draw against future commissions sufficient to bring the employee’s earnings for the week up to minimum wage.  In weeks where the employee worked more than 40 hours, and did not earn sufficient commissions to cover one and a half times the minimum wage, the employee would receive a draw against future commissions sufficient to bring the employee’s earnings for the week up to one and a half times the minimum wage.  The purpose of this pay structure was, among other things, to achieve compliance with the overtime exemption in section 7(i) of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) for certain commissioned employees of a retail or service establishment.  The company’s policy also provided that upon termination of employment, an employee will immediately pay the company any unpaid draw balance.

Two employees of a store in Ohio brought a putative nationwide collective action under the FLSA, as well as a putative state law class action asserting unjust enrichment with respect to the company’s more than twenty-five locations in Ohio.  They alleged failure to pay the minimum wage or overtime based on the theory that offsetting draw payments against future commissions amounted to an improper kick-back of wages to the employer.  They also claimed that the employer did not pay for certain non-sales activities and encouraged employees to work off the clock.  The complaint did not specifically allege that the two named plaintiffs worked off the clock or that the one plaintiff who was a former employee had to repay a draw balance when his employment ended.  The district court granted the company’s motion to dismiss, concluding that there was no FLSA violation and declining to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the state-law claims.

On appeal, after reviewing extensive interpretive guidance from the U.S. Department of Labor, the Sixth Circuit rejected the plaintiffs’ central theory that a recoverable draw amounts to an impermissible wage kick-back.  To the court, the key consideration is that under the pay system at issue, “deductions will be made from wages not delivered, that is, from future earned commissions that have not yet been paid.”  Because the company does not recover wages already “delivered to the employee,” the court “h[e]ld that this practice does not violate the ‘free and clear’ regulation.  See 29 C.F.R. § 531.35 (emphasis added).”  (Op. at 9-10.)

The divided panel reversed, however, in certain other respects.

First, the court determined that the FLSA section 7(i) overtime exemption does not apply because although the company’s pay plan provides for a minimum rate equal to one and one half times the minimum wage for any week where an employee works more than 40 hours, the exemption technically requires, among other things, a rate that is more than one and a half times the minimum wage.  (Note: federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, and 1.5 times that rate is $10.875 per hour.  Strictly speaking, a wage of $10.875 does not satisfy this aspect of the exemption, whereas $10.88 per hour does.  Perhaps on remand it will turn out that the company actually paid $10.88 per hour rather than $10.875, as it would be very unusual for an employer to use a pay rate that does not round up to the nearest cent.)

Second, the panel majority held that the company’s policy of requiring repayment of a draw balance upon termination of employment violated the FLSA as an improper kick-back.  This part of the decision is interesting because the majority parted ways with the dissenting judge and the district court over the issue of policy versus practice.  The complaint did not suggest that either named plaintiff actually paid back any draw balance, and at oral argument it became clear that the company never enforced that policy and, in fact, had eliminated the repayment policy during the litigation.  The dissenting judge, like the district court before him, believed that because the company had never applied the policy to the named plaintiffs, the policy would not support a claim for relief.  The majority, however, took a more expansive approach to the matter.  “Incurring a debt, or even believing that one has incurred a debt, has far-reaching practical implications for individuals.  It could affect the way an individual saves money or applies for loans.  An individual might feel obligated to report that debt when filling out job applications, credit applications, court documents, or other financial records that require self-reporting of existing liabilities.”  (Op. at 15.)  In short, the court arguably opened the door to allowing plaintiffs to bring FLSA claims even where they have suffered no injury cognizable under the FLSA, so long as the policy they challenge could potentially cause them other types of consequential damages beyond those covered by the FLSA.  This aspect of the ruling appears to be a first of its kind in FLSA jurisprudence.

Third, the panel majority concluded that the plaintiffs adequately alleged minimum wage and overtime violations based on the assertions regarding the company’s knowledge and encouragement of working off the clock.  Although the dissent pointed out that the complaint contained no allegation that either named plaintiff actually suffered a minimum wage or overtime violation as a result of working off the clock, the majority focused on the alleged practice, rather than its specific application to the named plaintiffs, determining that “Plaintiffs have alleged sufficient facts to support a claim that this practice violates the minimum wage and overtime requirements of the FLSA.”  (Op. at 19.)

This decision provides several lessons for employers:

  • Generally speaking, the FLSA allows for the concept of a recoverable draw against commissions.  Recovering a draw against future commissions is not automatically an impermissible wage kick-back.  (Note that there may be certain restrictions under state law, and under some conditions a recoverable draw may violate the FLSA.)
  • When relying on the FLSA section 7(i) exemption, ensure that the policy is clear that an employee will receive more than one and a half times the federal minimum wage for any workweek in which the employer will claim the exemption.
  • Closely review any policies regarding recovery of draw payments (or, indeed, any other types of payments) upon an employee’s termination.  Such policies are often subject to challenge, and they can serve as a trigger for claims by demanding a payment right at the time when a departing employee may cease to have an interest in maintaining a positive relationship with an employer.
  • Be very careful about policies or practices that may arguably encourage employees to work off the clock.  Employers should have clear written policies prohibiting employees from working off the clock, and employees and supervisors should receive periodic training on those policies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Featured on Employment Law This Week:  Another Department of Labor action currently in limbo is the new federal salary thresholds for the overtime exemption. But New York went ahead with its own increased thresholds, sealing the deal at the end of 2016.

In New York City, the threshold is now $825 a week, or $42,950 annually, for an executive or administrative worker at a company with 11 or more employees. The salary thresholds will increase each year, topping out at $1,125 per week in New York City and in Nassau, Suffolk, and Westchester counties.

Watch the segment below and see our colleagues’ advisory.

In a “Tip of the Week” segment on Employment Law This Week, Will Hansen, Senior Vice President of Retirement Policy for The ERISA Industry Committee (ERIC), offers some advice on preparing a benefits program in advance of the Department of Labor’s overtime rule:

“The Department of Labor’s Final Rule increasing the overtime exemption threshold to $47,476 dollars will not only have an impact on the wages an employee receives, but also the benefits that they receive. In advance of these changes taking effect on December 1st, it’s important for companies to review their benefit programs. First, they should determine whether there will be any increase or decrease in the overtime wages provided, as well as an increase or decrease in salaried over hourly employees. Next, they should examine the financial impact any change in their workforce will have on the company. . . . Lastly, the company should look at other benefits, such as paid sick leave or commuter transit benefits to see if there will be a change in participation which would have an impact on costs.”

View the segment below and see Michael Kun’s recent post on the overtime exemption rule.