Wage and Hour Division

Under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), employers can satisfy their minimum wage obligations to tipped employees by paying them a tipped wage of as low as $2.13 per hour, so long as the employees earn enough in tips to make up the difference between the tipped wage and the full minimum wage. (Other conditions apply that are not important here.) Back in 1988, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division amended its Field Operations Handbook, the agency’s internal guidance manual for investigators, to include a new requirement the agency sought to apply to restaurants. Under that then-new guidance, when tipped employees spend more than 20% of their working time on tasks that do not specifically generate tips—tasks such as wiping down tables, filling salt and pepper shakers, and rolling silverware into napkins, duties generally referred to in the industry as “side work”—the employer must pay full minimum wage, rather than the lesser tipped wage, for the side work.

This provision of the Handbook flew largely under the radar for years. This was partly because the Department did not publicize the contents of the Handbook, and party because the Department did not bring enforcement actions premised on a violation of this 20% standard. And historically, virtually nobody in the restaurant industry maintained records specifically segregating hours and minutes spent on tip-generating tasks as compared to side work.

In 2007, a federal district court in Missouri issued a ruling in a class action upholding the validity of the 20% standard, and that decision received an enormous amount of attention and publicity. In the years that followed, a wave of class actions against restaurants flooded the courts across the country, all contending that the restaurants owe the tipped employees extra money because of the Department’s 20% standard in the Handbook.

In January of 2009, in the waning days of the George W. Bush Administration, the Department issued an opinion letter rejecting the 20% standard, superseding the Handbook provision, and stating that there is no limit on the amount of time a tipped employee can spend on side work. Six weeks later, however, in March of 2009, the Obama Administration withdrew that opinion letter. In subsequent years, the Department filed several amicus curiae briefs in pending court cases endorsing the 20% standard, and the Department even modified the Handbook provision to make the requirements even more difficult for employers to satisfy.

In late 2017, a divided three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit concluded, in nine consolidated appeals presenting the same issue, that the Department’s 20% standard is not consistent with the FLSA and thus was unlawful. A few months later, however, a divided 11-judge en banc panel of the same court reached the opposite conclusion, ruling by an 8-3 vote that the 20% standard is worthy of deference.

In July of 2018, the Restaurant Law Center, represented by Epstein Becker Green, filed a declaratory judgment action against the Department in federal court in Texas challenging the validity of the 20% standard under the FLSA, the Administrative Procedure Act, and the U.S. Constitution. Roughly a month before the employers’ deadline to file a certiorari petition with the Supreme Court regarding the en banc Ninth Circuit ruling, and just days before the government’s response is due in the Texas litigation, the Department reissued the 2009 opinion letter.

This opinion letter, now designated as FLSA2018-27, once again rejects the 20% standard and clarifies that employers may pay a tipped wage when employees engage in side work so long as the side work occurs contemporaneously with, or in close proximity to, the employees’ normal tip-generating activity. This opinion letter should put an end to the many pending cases, including numerous class actions, that depend on the 20% standard.

The overall take-away for employers is that at least under federal law, side work performed during an employee’s shift, in between tip-generating tasks, should present no concern. The same should be true of side work performed at the start or end of an employee’s shift, so long as the side work does not take too long. An employee coming in fifteen or thirty minutes before the restaurant is open to help get the restaurant ready for the day, followed by the remainder of the shift in which the employee generates tips, seems to be consistent with the new opinion letter. Likewise for employees who spend some time at the end of the shift helping to close the restaurant for the day. But employers should use common sense and good judgment, as having tipped employees spend hours and hours performing side work may still give rise to risks. And it remains important to be aware of any state or local law requirements that may differ from federal law.

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.

On January 20, 2016, the DOL issued Wage and Hour Division Administrator’s Interpretation 2016-1 (“AI”) providing that businesses that use employees of third parties may be considered “joint employers” of those workers for purposes of compliance with the FLSA. The genesis of the joint-employment AI is the DOL’s expectation that businesses may seek to avoid the high costs and potential liabilities of maintaining their own employee workforce.

Although this AI is less than a year old, there are longstanding federal regulations on joint employment stating that when the employee performs work that simultaneously benefits two or more employers, or works for two or more employers at different times during the workweek, a joint-employment relationship generally will be considered to exist in situations where: (1) employers share an employee’s services, (2) one employer acts in the interest of the other employer in relation to the employee, or (3) one employer controls the other employer and therefore shares control of the other employer.

The DOL’s AI on joint employment goes far beyond the streamlined regulations in explaining the complex and comprehensive analysis to determine whether joint employment exists. To that end, the AI focuses on the DOL’s newly envisioned concepts of “horizontal” and “vertical” joint employment.

“Horizontal” Joint Employment

The DOL has explained that “horizontal” joint employment exists where an employee has employment relationships with two or more related or commonly owned businesses. In assessing horizontal joint employment, the DOL focuses on the relationship between the businesses, i.e., putative joint employers, but not the putative employee’s relationship between and among the putative joint employers. The DOL provides, as an example, a server who works for two different restaurants that are commonly owned.

To determine whether horizontal joint employment exists, the DOL considers the following eight criteria:

  1. Is there common ownership or management with respect to the putative joint employers?
  2. Do the putative joint employers have common officers, directors, executives, or directors?
  3. Do the putative joint employers share control over operations of both businesses?
  4. Are the operations of the putative joint employers’ businesses interrelated?
  5. Do the putative joint employers supervise the same employees?
  6. Do the putative joint employers treat employees as part of a pool available to both businesses?
  7. Do the putative joint employers share clients or customers?
  8. Do the putative joint employers maintain any agreements?

“Vertical” Joint Employment

The DOL has explained that “vertical” joint employment occurs when a worker employed by a third party enters into a work relationship with the putative joint employer. This arrangement commonly involves staffing agencies.

The AI states that in a vertical employment arrangement, the DOL considers the relationship between the putative joint employers and the worker. The DOL will first examine whether the worker’s direct employer, e.g., the staffing agency, is actually an employee of the putative joint employer. If such a relationship exists, then the DOL automatically finds joint employment.

If no such relationship exists, the DOL will then conduct an “economic realities” analysis to determine whether an employee of one business, e.g., the staffing agency, is economically dependent on another business that is the beneficiary of the services performed by the staffing agency’s employee. The AI provides the following economic realities criteria:

  • Directing, Controlling, or Supervising the Work Performed. To the extent that the work performed by the employee is controlled or supervised by the putative joint employer beyond a reasonable degree of contract performance oversight, such control suggests that the employee is economically dependent on the putative joint employer. The potential joint employer’s control can be indirect and still be sufficient to indicate economic dependence by the employee.
  • Controlling Employment Conditions. To the extent that the putative joint employer has the power to hire or fire the employee, modify employment conditions, or determine the rate or method of pay, such control indicates that the employee is economically dependent on the putative joint employer.
  • Permanency and Duration of Relationship. An indefinite, permanent, full-time, or long-term relationship by the employee with the putative joint employer suggests economic dependence.
  • Repetitive Nature of Work. To the extent that the employee’s work for the putative joint employer is repetitive, relatively unskilled, or requires little or no training, such facts indicate that the employee is economically dependent on the putative joint employer.
  • Integral to Business. If the employee’s work is an integral part of the putative joint employer’s business, that fact indicates that the employee is economically dependent on the putative joint employer.
  • Work Performed on Premises. The employee’s performance of the work on premises owned or controlled by the putative joint employer indicates that the employee is economically dependent on the putative joint employer.
  • Performing Administrative Functions Commonly Performed by Employers. To the extent that the putative joint employer performs administrative functions for the employee—such as handling payroll; providing workers’ compensation insurance; providing necessary facilities and safety equipment, housing, or transportation; or supplying tools and materials required for the work—such facts indicate economic dependence by the employee on the putative joint employer.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Take 5 newsletter Five Critical Wage and Hour Issues Impacting Employers.”

Wage and Hour Division’s Latest Newsletter Confirms Its Aggressive Approach
Infographic by DOL Wage and Hour Division.

The Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division, which is charged with enforcing federal wage laws, has just issued its latest newsletter.

Included in the newsletter is the Division’s presentation of a variety of statistics relating to its efforts.

Among the statistics reported by the Division:

  • It has assisted more than 1.7 million workers since 2009.
  • It has recovered approximately $1.6 billion for workers since 2009.
  • It recovered more than $246 million in back wages in 2015 alone for more than 240,000 workers.
  • In 2015, the Division found violations in 79% of its investigations.

What do these statistics mean for employers?

They mean that the Wage and Hour Division was not just talking when it said it would aggressively investigate and pursue wage-hour issues, including the misclassification of workers as independent contractors and the failure to pay employees for work performed off-the-clock.

Those statistics alone should serve as a reminder to employers to review their policies and practices to try to ensure compliance with wage-hour laws.  No employer wants to be part of these statistics next year.

The top story on Employment Law This Week – Epstein Becker Green’s new video program – is the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division’s new interpretation of joint employment.

The federal Wage and Hour Division issued an Administrator’s Interpretation with new guidelines for joint employers under the FLSA and Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act. The Division makes it clear that it believes employers are regularly part of joint employment relationships with their vendors and business partners. If an employee files a claim or lawsuit and a joint-employment relationship is found, both employers can be found liable for violations. Michael Thompson, co-editor of this blog, explains it more in depth on the show.

View the episode below or read more about this decision in an earlier blog post.

 

The Administrator of the Wage Hour Division of U.S. Department of Labor has issued an Administrator’s Interpretation of the FLSA’s definition of “employ.” And the conclusion is one that not only could have a significant impact on the way companies do business, but lead to numerous class and collective actions alleging that workers have been misclassified as independent contractors.

Addressing the misclassification of employees as independent contractors, the Administrator’s Interpretation notes that the FLSA’s defines the term “employ” as “to suffer or permit to work.” Based on that definition, the DOL concludes that “most workers are employees.”

The Interpretation cites to the six-factor “economic realities” test the DOL applies as indicia of employment, but emphasizes certain aspects of that test.  Notably, the Administrator states that the goal of the “economic realities” test is to determine whether a worker is “economically dependent” on the alleged employer, or is really in business for himself or herself.

1.  Is the Work an Integral Part of the Employer’s Business?

The Administrator’s Interpretation emphasizes that a workers’ duties are likely to be an “integral part” of an employer’s business if they relate to the employer’s core products or services.

For example, the Interpretation cited to the Seventh Circuit’s decision in Secretary of Labor v. Lauritzen, a self-described “federal pickle case” in which the issue was “whether the migrant workers who harvest the pickle crop of defendant … are employees … or are instead independent contractors….”

Summarizing the point, the Administrator’s Interpretation quoted the Seventh Circuit’s statement in that case stating that it “does not take much of a record to demonstrate that picking the pickles is a necessary and integral part of the pickle business. . . .”

2.  Does the Worker’s Managerial Skill Affect the Worker’s Opportunity for Profit or Loss?

The Administrator’s Interpretation emphasizes that the opportunity for profit or loss reflects independent contractor status only when it is dependent on managerial skill.

By contrast, the Administrator opines that the fact that a worker that can increase his or her earnings by working longer hours is not evidence that the worker is an independent contractor

3.  How Does the Worker’s Relative Investment Compare to the Employer’s Investment?

Previously, the DOL had stated that the relative investment of a worker “compared favorably” if the investment was substantial and could be used for the purpose of sustaining a business beyond the particular job or project the worker was performing.

While these factors are mentioned in the new guidance, the Administrator’s Interpretation appears to place greater emphasis on a comparison of the investments of the worker and the potential employer.  The Administrator opines that even if a worker has made an investment, that investment has to be significant when compared to the investment of the purported employer.

4.  Does the Work Performed Require Special Skill and Initiative?

The Administrator’s Interpretation asserts that it is a worker’s business skills as an independent business person, not his or her technical skills, that support independent contractor status.

The Administrator states that only skilled workers who operate as independent businesses, as opposed to being economically dependent on a potential employer, are independent contractors.

5.  Is the Relationship between the Worker and the Employer Permanent or Indefinite?

The DOL’s prior Fact Sheet on independent contractor status stated that the absence of a permanent relationship may not suggest independent contractor status when arising from “industry-specific factors” or the fact that the potential employer “routinely uses staffing agencies.”

The Administrator’s Interpretation adds to this opinion by opining that the finite nature of an independent contractor relationship should be the result of the worker’s “own business initiative.”

Thus, an employer who imposes limits on the duration of its independent contractor relationships should consider whether that policy will continue to have the desired results.

6.  What is the Nature and Degree of the Employer’s Control?

The Administrator’s interpretation emphasizes that an independent contractor must control “meaningful aspects” of the work demonstrating that the worker is conducting his or her own business.  However, the Interpretation does not specifically explain what aspects of a job are “meaningful.”

The Administrator does make clear that flexible work arrangements are common forms of employment.  Therefore, the Interpretation concludes the fact that an individual works from home or controls the hours of work is not particularly indicative of independent contractor status.

While the Administrator’s Interpretation does not have the force of law (or regulation), it will be applied by the DOL and may be given deference by courts.  Accordingly, employers should evaluate the extent to which they are relying on criteria addressed by the Administrator (such as flexible work arrangements and relationships of finite duration) as justification for classifying workers as independent contractors.

 

Furloughs are a hot topic in today’s economy.  I previously reported on the potential usefulness of furloughs, as well as the risk that reducing an employee’s salary as part of a furlough program could run afoul of the "salary basis" test and jeopardize the employee’s exempt status. 

Recognizing the need for legal guidance on this issue, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division recently issued a user-friendly "Frequently Asked Questions" fact sheet on furloughs. (Special thanks to my EBG colleague Elissa Silverman for bringing this to my attention.)

I don’t see any major surprises here.  Nevertheless, employers considering the use of a furlough program would be wise to consult this fact sheet first.

On the issue of the salary basis test, FAQ # 7 confirms the basic rules that I discussed in March of this year:

7. Can an employer make prospective reduction in pay for a salaried exempt employee due to the economic downturn?

An employer is not prohibited from prospectively reducing the predetermined salary amount to be paid regularly to a Part 541 exempt employee during a business or economic slowdown, provided the change is bona fide and not used as a device to evade the salary basis requirements. Such a predetermined regular salary reduction, not related to the quantity or quality of work performed, will not result in loss of the exemption, as long as the employee still receives on a salary basis at least $455 per week. On the other hand, deductions from predetermined pay occasioned by day-to-day or week-to-week determinations of the operating requirements of the business constitute impermissible deductions from the predetermined salary and would result in loss of the exemption. The difference is that the first instance involves a prospective reduction in the predetermined pay to reflect the long term business needs, rather than a short-term, day-to-day or week-to-week deduction from the fixed salary for absences from scheduled work occasioned by the employer or its business operations.

 

A report by the Government Accountability Office found that the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division, the federal agency charged with enforcing minimum wage, overtime and other labor laws, "is failing in that role, leaving millions of workers vulnerable," according to an article in today’s New York Times.

One of the reports concerned the Division’s office in Miami:

When an undercover agent posing as a dishwasher called four times to complain about not being paid overtime for 19 weeks, the division’s office in Miami failed to return his calls for four months, and when it did, the report said, an official told him it would take 8 to 10 months to begin investigating his case.

The report concludes that "Labor has left thousands of actual victims of wage theft who sought federal government assistance with nowhere to turn." 

Nowhere to turn? In Florida that’s simply not true.  As anyone who pays attention to court filings can tell you, dozens of workers each week, many on the low end of the pay scale, file claims for overtime and minimum wage violations in Florida state and federal courts.  Indeed, as previously reported here, according to the Administrative Office of the United States Courts, for the past five years the Southern District of Florida alone has averaged 28.7% of all Fair Labor Standards Act cases filed in the United States.  The notion that workers have "nowhere to turn" is absurd.  They need only turn to one of Florida’s many wage-hour lawyers, who have turned wage-hour litigation into a cottage industry in the sunshine state.  Does the GAO not realize that the FLSA permits private lawsuits, and in fact encourages them through its fee-shifting provisions? Why would an employee need the Wage and Hour Division when he has the Shavitz Law Firm or The Celler Legal Group in his corner?