In another of the six opinion letters issued by the U.S. Department of Labor on August 28, 2018, the DOL clarified in FLSA2018-21, that an employer that sells technology to merchants that allow them to accept credit card payments from mobile devices is indeed, a “retail or service establishment,” for purposes of the Fair Labor Standards Act exemption. While this seems to apply to a pretty limited amount of employers (for which the rest of you are wondering why you care about this and are still reading this post), the opinion letter provides guidance applicable to all.

First, the DOL references the recent U.S. Supreme Court Encino Motorcars case, noting that exemptions under the FLSA should be fairly – not narrowly – interpreted. Thus, the DOL recognizes that it “must apply a ‘fair reading’ standard to all exemptions to the FLSA – including the Section 7(i) exemption”. In doing so, the DOL opines that just because the employer sells its product to commercial entities does not mean it does not qualify for the retail and service establishment exemption. Further, the DOL notes that courts have confirmed that case law does not require a physical location accessed by the public, that a business is open to the public if they receive orders on the phone, for example.

Additionally, the DOL noted that the sales of the product (a credit card reading platform) are indeed retail sales – not wholesale, because the employer does not sell large quantities of the platform to individuals, but instead tailors the product to their customers who then use it for their clients. That being said, the DOL does caution that, while it has “considerable discretion”, the courts have final say with respect to whether sales are recognized as “retail” in a particular industry.

The result? The FLSA’s retail or service establishment exemption applies (and thus, no overtime is due) to employees of an employer that sells customer technology to commercial clients, so long as the employee’s regular rate of pay exceeds 1.5 times minimum wage in the workweeks they work overtime and commissions constitute more than half of their earnings (in other words, usually commissioned inside sales representatives).

On March 23, 2018, President Trump signed into law the Consolidated Appropriations Act. As you may remember, earlier this year the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) sought comments related to rescinding portions of the 2011 Obama Administration’s ban on tip-sharing arrangements (see my earlier blog here). However, the Act eliminated the issue before the DOL could address it. Under the Act, “employers who pay the full FLSA minimum wage are no longer prohibited from allowing employees who are not customarily and regularly tipped—such as cooks and dishwashers—to participate in tip pools.” However, there are two important caveats worth mentioning. First, the Act does not eliminate the prohibition on managers and supervisors from participating in tip pools. Second, the Minnesota Fair Labor Standards Act (MnFLSA) prohibits employers from requiring employees to share tips (it has to be their choice to tip pool).  Thus, while the FLSA now allows tip pooling, employers in Minnesota are still prohibited from requiring employees to share tips.  Additionally, the Act amends the FLSA to prohibit employers from keeping tips.

The DOL issued a Field Assistance Bulletin on April 6, 2018, further detailing the impact of the amendment, noting it expects to proceed with rulemaking in the near future to address what this means exactly. Importantly, the DOL stated that when determining whether an employee is a supervisor or manager for purposes of tip pooling, it will use the duties test set forth at 29 CFR 541.100(a)(2)-(4). This test looks at whether the individual’s primary duty is management of the business or a department or subdivision, whether that person customarily and regularly directs the work of two or more employees, and whether the individual may hire or fire other employees or whose suggestions and recommendations as to hiring/firing/promotions/other change of status is given particular weight. Violations of the amended Act may result in recovery of all tips unlawfully held by the employer plus an equal amount as liquidated damages as well as possible civil money penalties.

The Equal Pay Act (EPA) requires that all individuals are paid equally for performing the same job, regardless of gender. But what does that mean exactly? When are jobs equal? On March 21, 2018, in Berghoff v Patterson Dental Holdings, the Honorable Judge Frank ruled that jobs of males and females “need not be identical to be considered equal under the EPA”, and that “job titles and classifications are not dispositive.” (D. Minn., March 21, 2018, Case No. 16-2472). Judge Frank noted there are only four exceptions to the EPA: “(1) a seniority system; (2) a merit system; and (3) a system that measures quantity or quality of production; or (4) that the pay differential was based on a factor other than gender.” In this case, the employer argued that the Plaintiff’s compensation was lower not because she was female, but because the product she marketed for the company generated less revenue than her male counterparts (who marketed products that brought in higher revenue for the company). While the jobs being compared were “essentially [all] marketing positions”, and the revenue generated by each of the respective products being marketed is relevant, the Court held that fact issues “surrounding the economic analysis on that point” precluded summary judgment. In sum, because there was a dispute regarding the use of revenue streams to show that the Plaintiff’s job involved less responsibility, the lawsuit goes on. However, Judge Frank similarly hinted that Plaintiff’s claim appeared weak and that “settlement would serve the interests of all parties.”

Take away for employers? Especially as your company grows, restructures, or changes compensation and commission plans, take a look at similar positions and ensure that there is no apparent pay disparity based on gender (or anything other than the four exceptions noted above).

Late last year, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) issued a notice of proposed rulemaking, requesting comments related to rescinding portions of the 2011 Obama Administration tip pooling regulations that prohibit an employer from controlling or diverting tips (tips remain with the employee they are given to and up to him/her to share with others or not). The new rule would rescind “the parts of its tip regulations that bar tip-sharing arrangements in establishments where the employers pay full Federal minimum wage and do not take a tip credit against their minimum wage obligations.” As the tip-pooling ban may negatively affect the potential earnings of back-of house-staff, this is not only an issue for employers to keep an eye on, but those back-of-the-house employees as well.  While most wait staff share tips, it is not often split equally, resulting in a disproportionate amount of tips to the front-of-the-house and rescinding this regulation would allow employers to ensure all its staff are equally tipped for their combined team efforts.

Interestingly, after the notice and comment period ended on February 5, 2018, the DOL Office of the Inspector General (OIG) informed the DOL’s Wage and Hour division that an audit on the rulemaking process the DOL engaged in regarding the proposed tip pooling regulation was ongoing.  OIG launched the audit in response to concerns the DOL allegedly hid internal estimates of the proposal’s impact on workers. Accordingly, employers in industries where tipping is a prevalent practice should continue to monitor the developments with the proposed rule.

On January 5, 2018, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals (this includes Minnesota), in Boswell v. Panera Bread Co. (8th Cir. 2018), held that Panera Bread Company (Panera) was not able cap the bonuses it had offered a group of 67 managers. In an effort to recruit and retain managers, Panera offered a large-one time bonus. Under the compensation plan, managers were to receive a one-time performance bonus, five years after signing the agreement. Moreover, the manager had to be a manager on the date the bonus was payable (5 years in the future). After the bonus plan was implemented, Panera modified the plan to include a $100,000 cap on the amount of the bonus a manager could receive.

The Court found the bonus cap breached the unilateral contract established when Panera offered to pay the managers a bonus for the managers’ continued at-will employment. Departing from prior Missouri cases finding that an offer could be revoked under a unilateral contract prior to substantial performance, the Court held the managers “beginning of performance would render the offer irrevocable.”

What does this mean for employers?  Tread carefully when offering long term bonus or commission plans; be sure that circumstances can’t change so much that you may not be able to deliver on the promise.  Be sure to insert an explicit reservation clause, stating that the employer may revoke or (prospectively) modify the offer, in its sole discretion. Panera attempted to argue it had reserved the right to revoke or modify the bonus payment, since the payment was conditioned on the managers’ continuance of work, a condition Panera argued it controlled under the employment at will rule. However, the Court rejected that argument, finding “Panera was not entitled to move the goalposts on [the managers] by imposing a bonus cap, which was outside the contemplation of the unilateral-contract offer.” In order to demonstrate the parties contemplated a modification or revocation, employers should make sure upon offering a bonus to include clear language stating the bonus is voluntary and may be withheld or modified without notice. That being said, it is also probably not a bad idea to state you will only do so “prospectively” – in other words, provide notice the bonus program is changing before it actually changes.  Then have all employees acknowledge the change.  In this instance, the Court alluded to the fact that Panera could have changed the bonus plan formula, but did not; it erred by adding new conditions (a cap on a bonus).