DOL Provides Guidance on FLSA Issues in 17 Revived Opinion Letters

DOL LettersOn January 5, 2018, the Department of Labor’s (DOL) Wage and Hour Division issued 17 Opinion Letters addressing issues under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) that had been originally drafted in 2009.  Specifically, in the last days of the Bush Administration, the DOL prepared these Opinion Letters, which were pulled back less than two months later after President Obama took office.  Interestingly, these are the first Opinion Letters that have been issued since 2009.  These letters largely examine application of the White-Collar Exemptions under Section 13(a) of the Act, but they also explore treatment of on-call time, bonuses, commission compensation, and joint-employment vs. volunteer status.  Although none of these letters represent ground-breaking interpretations of the law and the DOL characterizes the guidance as very fact specific, issuing them provides some additional guidance on which employers may be able to rely, who are faced with similar factual situations, and indicates how the Trump Administration will interpret these topics going forward.

In relation to on-call time, two letters – FLSA2018-1 and FLSA2018-7 – address when on-call time is compensable, as well as deductions from exempt employee pay for failure to be available for an on-call shift.  FLSA2018-1 starts from the premise that on-call time need not be compensated if the employee can use the time for their own purposes “unless the restrictions [on their time] are so burdensome and the call-backs so frequent as to prevent free use of their time.”  In this context, the letter explains that requiring ambulance personnel in a small town to respond in five minutes to call-backs made on a relatively infrequent basis (about three per week) did not present the type of restrictions that would make the on-call time compensable.

In FLSA2018-7, the DOL explains when an employer can deduct time from an exempt employee’s pay, who is not available to be called in for her on-call hours.  According to the DOL’s interpretation, if the employee’s unavailability for on-call time would constitute a full day of work, the hours actually missed can be deducted from the employee’s pay.  Accordingly, this guidance indicates that the DOL under President Trump may take a narrower view of compensable on-call time and a broader view of when its permissible to deduct time from exempt employee pay, although the DOL did emphasize that the time away must be equivalent to a full day of work to be deducted.

Another common FLSA issue addressed by these reissued letters is the treatment of employee bonuses.  Specifically, in FLSA2018-9, the DOL revised a prior Wage and Hour interpretation and explained that providing a non-discretionary bonus paid at the end of the year, calculated as a percentage of straight-time and overtime earnings, is compliant.  As to the change to a prior interpretation, FLSA2018-9 explains that, to the extent Opinion Letter WH-241 requires all remuneration to be used in calculating a percentage bonus, even payments outside what’s required to be included in the regular rate of pay, this portion of the prior Opinion Letter is withdrawn.  Moreover, the DOL makes clear its understanding that a non-discretionary bonus calculated from a percentage of straight-time pay and overtime compensation does not require additional overtime compensation be provided because payment of the bonus would increase the straight-time and overtime compensation by the same percentage.

Under the FLSA employers are required to pay overtime based on the regular rate of pay, which includes non-discretionary bonuses, and this letter indicates that this requirement is met by calculating the bonus using a percentage of straight-time and overtime compensation.  Indeed, FLSA2018-11 reiterates this concept in verifying that a bonus paid to non-exempt employees for all days worked, and not conditioned on any other factor, must be included in determining each employees’ regular rate of pay.

Furthermore, several of the letters address which types of employees fall into one of the exemptions identified in Section 13(a)(1) based on the specific types of duties performed.  These letters generally start from the assumption that the employee is earning at least $455.00 per week – the former salary threshold level for exempt employees prior to the DOL’s 2016 rulemaking to increase that salary threshold level.  For example, in one letter, FLSA2018-4, the DOL addresses whether a project superintendent at a construction site can be classified as an exempt employee under the FLSA.  Assessments of this type of position have been split on whether an employee can be treated as exempt because the evaluation is so dependent on the specific type of duties assigned.  FLSA2018-4 opines that a project superintendent could fall within the administrative exemption where, as is the position is described in the letter, he or she primarily is responsible for overseeing the construction project from start to finish, exercises independent judgment in securing and hiring subcontractors and overseeing their work (among other, similar duties), and made significant decisions about how the project would be performed.  In addition to addressing the specific situation described in the inquiry, the Letter also demonstrates how the DOL would analyze a question of exempt status under Section 13(a)(1), as this letter considers three potential exemptions under Section 13(a)(1) – professional, executive, and administrative.

Although these guidance documents do not establish new law or even necessarily apply to many employers, companies should be aware of them because they may be very helpful in trying to determine how to navigate the FLSA under similar facts as those addressed in each letter.  Additionally, employers may be able to rely on these letters to show the DOL’s interpretation of a specific provision in defending itself against claims alleged by employees or enforcement actions initiated by the DOL.  We may see more guidance of this type once a new head of the Wage and Hour Division is confirmed.  On January 18, 2017, Cheryl Stanton was approved by the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, but her nomination must still face a full Senate vote before she can be confirmed.

U.S. Department of Labor Changes Position on Internships under the FLSA

interns wantedAlthough summer seems far away, now is the time when most employers begin to prepare for their summer internship programs.  Internships are a great way to give college students or new professionals some hands-on experience in your industry.  However, one major question that has plagued employers over the past decade is whether an intern must be paid under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) based on the duties he or she performs in the intern role and the structure of  internship program.

While some employers offer paid internships, other internships are unpaid or only provide a stipend lower than the minimum wage.  Given the recent string of high-profile class action cases brought by unpaid interns, for-profit, private sector employers must be aware of the FLSA’s requirements as it relates to unpaid interns.  Specifically, employers need to carefully evaluate whether an intern qualifies as an “unpaid intern” or an “employee” entitled to compensation.   Continue reading

Conn Maciel Carey Opens Chicago Office with Prominent OSHA and Labor Lawyers Aaron Gelb and Mark Trapp

Washington, D.C.-based OSHA and Labor & Employment law firm Conn Maciel Carey LLP is pleased to announce the launch of a Midwest Office in Chicago, IL and the addition of two prominent Chicago attorneys – Aaron R. Gelb and Mark M. Trapp.

“We are thrilled not only to expand the Firm’s national footprint to the Midwest, but especially to be doing so with such great lawyers as Aaron and Mark,” said Bryan Carey, the firm’s managing partner.  “This move will enable us to better serve our existing national platform of clients, and will strengthen the firm’s specialty focus on Labor & Employment and Workplace Safety Law.  We look forward to bringing Aaron and Mark on board, as they will add depth to all areas of the firm’s practice, including OSHA, litigation and labor counseling on behalf of our management clients.”

Mr. Gelb, former Labor & Employment Shareholder and head of the OSHA Practice at Vedder Price PC, in its Chicago office, represents employers in all aspects of the employer-employee relationship.  Aaron GelbAaron’s practice has a particular emphasis on advising and representing clients in relation to inspections, investigations, and enforcement actions involving federal OSHA and state OSH programs, and managing the full range of litigation against OSHA.

“Aaron and I share the same vision of how we want to practice law and do business, thus entrusting him with the keys to our new Chicago office, and combining our expertise, talent, and resources together made so much sense,” said Eric J. Conn, Chair of the firm’s national OSHA practice“We look forward to partnering with Aaron to build a solid brand for our Midwest practice among our client base and doing what we know best, providing top-notch service and excellent value to clients.”

Aaron also has extensive experience litigating equal employment opportunity matters in federal and state courts having tried a number of cases to verdict and defending employers before the EEOC as well as fair employment agencies across the country.  In the past 5 years alone, Aaron has successfully handled more than 250 discrimination charges.

Mr. Gelb said “I am incredibly excited to join what I believe to be the country’s leading OSHA practice as the experience and expertise of the Conn Maciel team will enable me to enhance the workplace safety legal support I currently provide to my clients in the Midwest and beyond.  I’ve known Eric for years and have great respect for what he and his colleagues have accomplished in the OSH field.  At the same time, Kara’s employment defense group fits perfectly with my practice as we share a common client-focused philosophy and deep experience in many of the same industries.  While leaving Vedder Price after nearly 20 years was not an easy decision, I simply could not pass up the opportunity to partner with two dynamic attorneys that so perfectly complement the dual aspects of my practice.”

Mr. Trapp joins the firm with seventeen years of experience, during which he has represented employers in all types of labor disputes, from union campaigns and collective bargaining to grievances and arbitrations. Mark M. Trapp (3)Mr. Trapp has defended employers before administrative agencies and in litigation brought under the ADA, ADEA, Title VII and other federal anti-discrimination laws.

Mr. Trapp said “I am thrilled to again have the opportunity to work with the top-notch legal professionals at Conn Maciel Carey.” According to Mr. Trapp, the expertise of a boutique firm focused on OSHA and other labor and employment matters “complements my experience handling labor and employment issues. I look forward to helping strengthen the team’s ability to provide exceptional knowledge and insights to labor and employment clients, and expanding the firm’s presence in the Midwest.”

Mr. Trapp is perhaps best known as a leading authority on multi-employer pension withdrawal liability.  His articles on withdrawal liability and other labor and employment issues have been published in respected legal publications.

“I have worked with Mark for over a decade at various law firms, so I am excited that he has joined our boutique practice that focuses on positive client solutions and effective client service.  His unique knowledge of traditional labor issues and multi-employer pension disputes is unparalleled and he has proven to be a creative and out-of-the-box adviser when counseling clients,” Kara M. Maciel, Chair of the Labor & Employment Practice reported.

The Office Holiday Party: Best Practices to Avoid Legal Trouble

shutterstock_holiday party glassesThe holiday season is here, and employees are looking forward to celebrating with their family and co-workers.  However, the office holiday party – an anticipated yearly tradition in many workplaces – has now become a cause for concern for employers, especially amidst the current national conversation about workplace sexual harassment.

What is the result?  Many companies are cancelling holiday party plans, or hosting alternative parties with less alcohol and more day light.

There is certainly nothing wrong with hosting a holiday party, and employers should not be discouraged from doing so.  Hosting a holiday party for your employees is beneficial, as it helps boost employee morale and demonstrates Continue reading

Hurricanes Headaches:  HR FAQs for Employers

Hurricane.jpgHurricane Florence is approaching the United States, and first and foremost, employers need to make sure their employees, customers, and guests are safe from the storm.

Natural disasters such as hurricanes, earthquakes and tornadoes have posed unique human resource (HR) challenges from wage-hour to FMLA leave and the WARN Act. The best protection is to have a plan in place in advance to ensure your employees are paid and well taken care of during a difficult time.

Although no one can ever be fully prepared for such natural disasters, it is important to be aware of the federal and state laws that address these situations. Our guidance can be used by employers in navigating through the legal and business implications created by events such as hurricanes.  In addition, the information may be applicable to other crises and disasters, such as fires, flu epidemics and workplace violence.

Frequently Asked Questions 

If a work site is closed because of the weather or cannot reopen because of damage and/or loss of utilities, am I required to pay affected employees?

The Fair Labor Standards Act requires employers to pay their non-exempt employees only for hours that the employees have actually worked. Therefore, an employer is not required to pay nonexempt employees if it is unable to provide work to those employees due to a natural disaster.

An exception to this general rule exists when there are employees who receive fixed salaries for fluctuating workweeks. These are nonexempt employees who have agreed to work a specified number of hours for a specified salary. An employer must pay these employees their full weekly salary for any week in which any work was performed.

For exempt employees, an employer will be required to pay the employee’s full salary if the work site is closed or unable to reopen due to inclement weather or other disasters for less than a full workweek. However, an employer may require exempt employees to use available leave for this time.

Is it lawful to dock the salaries of exempt employees who do not return to work when needed after an emergency or disaster?

The U.S. Department of Labor considers an absence caused by transportation difficulties experienced during weather emergencies, if the employer is open for business, as an absence for personal reasons. Under this circumstance, an employer may place an exempt employee on leave without pay (or require the employee to use accrued vacation time) for the full day that he or she fails to report to work.

If an employee is absent for one or more full days for personal reasons, the employee’s salaried status will not be affected if deductions are made from a salary for such absences. However, a deduction from salary for less than a full-day’s absence is not permitted.

We recommend caution, however, in docking salaried employees’ pay and suggest that you first consult with legal counsel. Moreover, many employers instead require employees to “make up” lost time after they return to work, which is permissible for exempt employees. This practice is not allowed for nonexempt employees, who must be paid overtime for all hours worked over 40 in a workweek.

What other wage and hour pitfalls should employers be aware of following a hurricane or other natural disaster?

On-call time: An employee who is required to remain “on call” at the employer’s premises or close by may be working while “on call,” and the employer may be required to pay that employee for his “on call” time. For example, maintenance workers who remain on the premises during a storm to deal with emergency repairs must be compensated — even if they perform no work — if they are not free to leave at any time.

Waiting time: If an employee is required to wait, that time is compensable. For example, if employees are required to be at work to wait for the power to restart, that is considered time worked.

Volunteer time: Employees of private not-for-profit organizations are not volunteers if they perform the same services that they are regularly employed to perform. They must be compensated for those services. Employers should generally be cautious about having employees “volunteer” to assist the employer during an emergency if those duties benefit the company and are regularly performed by employees.

Can employees affected by a hurricane seek protected leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)?

Yes, employees affected by a natural disaster are entitled to leave under the FMLA for a serious health condition caused by the disaster. Additionally, employees affected by a natural disaster who must care for a child, spouse or parent with a serious health condition may also be entitled to leave under the FMLA.

Some examples of storm-related issues might include absences caused by an employee’s need to care for a family member who requires refrigerated medicine or medical equipment not operating because of a power outage.

If a work site or business is damaged and will not reopen, what notice must be provided to affected employees?

The Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act, a federal law, imposes notice requirements on employers with 100 or more employees for certain plant closings and/or mass layoffs. However, an exception exists where the closing or layoff is a direct result of a natural disaster.

Nonetheless, the employer is required to give as much notice as is practicable. If an employer gives less than 60 days’ notice, the employer must prove that the conditions for the exception have been met. If such a decision is contemplated, it is advisable to consult with legal counsel about the possible notice requirements to ensure compliance with the WARN Act.

Our HR department has been disrupted, and it may be weeks before things are back to normal. Will the government extend any of the customary deadlines governing employer payment for benefits, pension contributions and other subjects during this recovery effort?

During previous natural disasters, particularly Hurricane Sandy and Katrina, many governmental agencies and entities extended the deadlines for certain reports and paperwork. Therefore, it is expected that with future natural disasters, the government will provide some deadline extensions, but, as with every natural disaster, the government’s response will vary.

Regardless of what extensions may be granted, employers should be fully aware of state laws and implement any policies or plans necessary to minimally interrupt the payment of wages to their employees.

Employees from other states want to donate leave to affected employees. Is this lawful?

Yes. Employers can allow employees to donate leave to a leave bank and then award the donated leave to the affected employees.

Disaster Preparation Checklist

  • Identify and notify those employees whom you believe should be deemed “emergency services personnel” and will be required to work during a storm or evacuation order. Make arrangements for providing these employees with food and shelter. Make sure to have procedures in place for the evacuation of these employees if the hurricane or other disaster causes the workplace to become unsafe.
  • Identify your “essential employees.” These are employees whom you cannot require to be at work during a natural disaster but you believe are vital to the continued operations of your company. Determine what incentives you can provide to these employees to entice them to work during a disaster or to return to work as soon as possible. These incentives can include shelter, hot meals, fuel and arrangements for family members.
  • Establish a contingency plan to address the needs of those employees who may be temporarily living in company facilities during a storm or disaster. Ensure that you can provide such necessities as gas, food and shelter to these employees.
  • Review your existing policies to determine how to distribute paychecks to employees who cannot come to work because of adverse weather conditions or a lack of power.
  • Establish a communication plan. This will include identifying ways to keep the lines of communication open with your employees even if power is out in the local community. Collect primary and secondary contact sources from your employees. Consider establishing a toll-free phone line, through which employees can obtain updated information regarding the company’s status during an emergency.
  • Review applicable leave policies and procedures to address and allow for disaster-related leave requests, including how such leave will be treated (i.e., paid or unpaid).
  • Formulate a team of decision makers who will have authority to make crucial decisions related to other human resource matters in the midst of the hurricane or other disaster. This team should establish a method of communicating with each of its members during the hurricane.
  • Review any existing employee assistance programs and ensure that employees know how to utilize these programs during the aftermath. A successful program can promote the fast and efficient return of your employees.
  • Remember to be sensitive to the needs of your employees who have experienced extensive property damage or personal devastation. Always keep in mind that human life and safety trumps all other business necessities.

Natural disasters can pose a myriad of HR challenges for employers. While many employers are working around the clock on recovery efforts, other employers find themselves unable to function for extended periods of time because of damage or loss of utilities.  The economic effects of a natural disaster will have long-term consequences on businesses in the affected region.

 

Obama Era Overtime Rule Officially Struck Down

On August 31, 2017, a Texas federal judge invalidated the Obama administration’s controversial rule expanding overtime protections to millions of white collar workers, saying the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) improperly used a salary-level test to determine which workers are exempt from overtime compensation.

As you likely will recall, the Obama administration’s “overtime rule” (which we explainedOvertime Business Man Clock in detail here) raised the minimum salary threshold required to qualify for the Fair Labor Standards Act’s “white collar” exemption to just over $47,000 per year.  In granting summary judgment to the Plano Chamber of Commerce and other business groups who had filed a lawsuit challenging the “overtime rule,” U.S. District Judge Amos Mazzant said that the “significant increase” to the overtime threshold amount would essentially render meaningless the duties, functions, or tasks that an employee performs if their salary falls below the new minimum salary level.  Judge Mazzant further stated that “[t]he department has exceeded its authority and gone too far with the final rule,” and that “[t]he department creates a final rule that makes overtime status depend predominately on a minimum salary level, thereby supplanting an analysis of an employee’s job duties. Because the final rule would exclude so many employees who perform exempt duties, the department fails to carry out Congress’s unambiguous intent.”

As we previously informed you here, the “overtime rule” had been on hold by way of an injunction since late November 2016 as a result of a legal challenge brought by states and business groups, and as a result, employers have been waiting for clarity since that time.  Through his decision, Judge Amos Mazzant has now provided employers with much needed clarity.  Based on previous statements made by the current administration’s Labor Secretary, Alex Acosta, it is expected that at some point in the future the DOL will propose a new rule, setting the salary threshold somewhere between the current level of $23,660 and the $47,476 level set by the Obama administration.  However, based on Judge Mazzant’s harsh criticism, as well as the tenor of the Trump administration, it is unlikely that a new rule will be promulgated anytime soon.  So, for now, employers can continue to abide by the traditional overtime threshold that has been in place for more than a decade.

California Opportunity to Work Act Spells Trouble for Employers

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California Assembly Bill (AB) 5, the Opportunity to Work Act, was recently approved by the California Assembly Committee on Labor and Employment in April 2017.  The Appropriations Committee postponed a hearing on the bill that was scheduled for May 3, 2017.  Given the strong industry opposition to this bill and its harmful impact on employers, it is likely that the Appropriations Committee is taking a closer look at the bill and the negative Continue reading