Fair Labor Standards Act

The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) was extremely busy with its announcements on August 28, 2018. Along with issuing 6 opinion letters, a directive, and launching a new web page (all of which I previously wrote about), it also announced the creation of not one, but two new websites, as well as the new Office of Compliance Initiatives. The new websites, worker.gov and employer.gov provide one location for information for federal worker protections (worker.gov) and information for employers about their responsibilities for federal worker protections (employer.gov).

The employer.gov website provides information regarding pay and benefits; workplace safety and health; small business resources; required posters; nondiscrimination; federal contractor requirements; and veteran and service member employment. It has frequently asked employer questions as well. In theory, the Office of Compliance Initiatives will work to promote greater understanding of federal labor laws and regulations, and will work with enforcement agencies to ensure compliance with the law.

What does that mean for the average employer? I have no idea. It seems to me to be yet another pair of government websites designed to provide consolidated information and links. But as always, nothing is as easy as it seems, and thus, it’s just one more set of data to review. In any event, Minnesota employers should also keep in mind that our laws cannot be ignored and so just because something is allowed under federal law, does not necessarily mean it is under state law. Thus, while this may be handy from a federal perspective, don’t forget about the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry agency regulations and our Minnesota state wage and hour laws.

On July 13, 2018, the Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division (WHD) released Field Assistance Bulletin No. 2018-4 providing guidance on when caregiver registries are an “employer” of caregivers under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Rather than providing in home care services directly, registries provide individuals, such as seniors and those with disabilities, support for finding in-home care by offering referrals of qualified pre-screened caregivers from their database. This may be nurses, home health aids, personal care attendants, or home care workers, however titled. For the past four decades, the WHD’s position has been that generally a registry, even one that performs payroll services, is not an employer under the FLSA; however, if the registry directs and controls the caregivers work and sets the rate of pay, it is an employer. However, regulation changes and requests for additional guidance promoted the WHD to pen the bulletin.

To determine whether a registry is an employer, the WHD engages in a fact-specific assessment of the relationship between the registry and the caregiver, known as the “economic reality” test. Field Assistance Bulletin 2018-4 identifies common practices of registry business practices and operations that the WHD may analyze when determining if an employment relationship exists. While the individual factors identified in the Field Assistance Bulletin are not dispositive, the factors are helpful for employers to identify business practices that may establish an employment relationship, therefore triggering obligations under the FLSA:

  • Conducting Background and Reference Checks
  • Hiring and Firing
  • Scheduling and Assigning Work
  • Controlling the Caregiver’s Work
  • Setting the Pay Rate
  • Receiving Payments of Caregiver Services
  • Paying Wages
  • Tracking Caregiver Hours
  • Purchasing Equipment and Supplies
  • Receiving EINs or 1099s

Notably, the WHD does not focus on a single factor, but rather looks at the “totality of the circumstances,” including the control and influence the registry has on the caregiver’s terms and conditions of employment.

When a local movie theater started serving food during the movie, I was quite excited (until I realized how loud it would be while watching the movie). Yet, not once did I think about whether my server fell under the “motion picture theater” (movie theater) exemption to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)…nor had I heard of such a thing, frankly. On August 28, 2018, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) addressed the question of what constitutes an “establishment” for purposes of the overtime exemption in opinion letter FLSA2018-23. While the question was asked in the context of a restaurant within a movie theater, the DOL’s opinion provides insight to all employers.

When determining what constitutes an “establishment” for purposes of the FLSA, the DOL looks at the nature of the business, not the work performed by the employee. The DOL also notes that an “establishment” is a “distinct physical place of business” not “an entire business or enterprise”. Thus, so long as business units or portions of a business located on the same premises share bookeeping, records, taxes, invoices, banks, and employees, etc. they are one “establishment” for the exemption. Thus, in this case, the DOL opined that the movie theater and restaurant constituted one “establishment” for purposes of the motion picture theater exemption, and thus employees who work both in theater as an usher, and in the theater’s full-service restaurant as a server are not entitled to overtime. However, don’t forget – just because the FLSA does not apply, does not mean that state law does not (overtime after 48 hours per workweek).

I’m a big fan of volunteering, and am highly involved in several community groups.  In one of them that I’m involved in, we frequently joke about being “voluntold” to do something (go ahead and suggest a good idea…dare you!). Yet, when is volunteering truly volunteering and not compensable work? In another of the U.S. Department of Labor’s (DOL) August 28, 2018 opinion letters, the DOL clarified when a volunteer need not be paid in FLSA2018-22. While this particular opinion letter talks about professional exam graders for a nonprofit organization, the opinion can help other employers who provide volunteer opportunities for employees. In the facts presented, these graders (typically high-level multi-national executives) used to get a fee for taking a week or two to travel overseas to grade professional exams. It was considered an honor to be asked and they are at the top of their profession. The nonprofit wanted to clarify if they could be classified as “volunteers,” even though their travel, room and board, etc. was paid for. The DOL said, “yes”.

The DOL noted that the FLSA does not require payment to an employee who “volunteers without contemplation or receipt of compensation”, as the FLSA, “recognizes the generosity and public benefits of volunteering and allows people to freely volunteer time to religious, charitable, civic, humanitarian, or similar nonprofit organizations as a public service.” However, the volunteer service must be “freely without coercion or undue pressure” (direct or implied). In other words, employees cannot “volunteer” to perform their job, and cannot be pressured to do so (i.e. everyone is expected to volunteer). Seems simple enough, but of course there is always grey – for example, the opinion notes that this is related to a nonprofit. But what about employees that “volunteer” to run or organize a fundraising campaign through work? What if the company has a relationship with the nonprofit and benefits from it (i.e. employee morale, jeans days, etc.). That is where hairs start getting split and the facts should be carefully considered.

On August 28, 2018, in FLSA2018-20, the US Department of Labor (DOL) issued another opinion letter stating that the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) does not require that employers pay employees to attend voluntary wellness activities, biometric screenings, and benefits fairs held during (or outside of) work hours – if some conditions are met. First, they must be voluntary. Second, it must not be related to the employee’s job. Third, they must not be a part of new employee orientation and open to all employees. Fourth, the employer must not receive direct financial benefit as a result of employee participation.  And Lastly, they must be outside of normal work breaks.  In short, the activities must be “predominantly for the benefit of the employee”.

In this instance, “wellness activities” are offered by the employer as a way for employees to potentially decrease monthly insurance premiums through health education classes, gym classes, phone health coaching, participating in Weight Watchers, and engaging in voluntary fitness activities. The biometric screenings measures things such as cholesterol, blood pressure, and nicotine usage. The benefits fairs allow employees to learn about financial planning, college opportunities, and employer benefits.

The DOL concluded that the FLSA does not require payment for such time, as it is “off duty” time per 29 C.F.R. § 785.16. One footnote (literally in the opinion) – this analysis is based on such events taking more than a standard 20 minute break time.  For example, if these events are offered during a break of up to 20 minutes, then they would be compensable (paid) under 29 C.F.R. 785.18, because so long as an employer provides a paid break, it does not matter how the employee spends that time for his or her own benefit.

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).

The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) has not forgotten about the proposed overtime regulation overhaul, though it’s been a bit sleepy on this issue this past year since its July 26 2017 Request for Information. On August 28, 2018, the DOL announced it will hold five “listening sessions” (none in Minnesota- the closest being Kansas City, MO). These sessions are open to the public and scheduled between September 7 and 24, 2018. Notably for those of us in Minnesota who are nowhere close to attending one, the DOL is asking for input on the following questions:

  1.  What is the appropriate salary level (or range of salary levels) above which the overtime exemptions for bona fide executive, administrative, or professional employees may apply?  Why?
  2. What benefits and costs to employees and employers might accompany an increased salary level? How would an increased salary level affect real wages (e.g. increasing overtime pay for employees who current salaries are  below a new level but above the current threshold)? Could an increased salary level reduce litigation costs by reducing the number of employees whose exemption status is unclear? Could this additional certainty produce other benefits for employees and employers?
  3. What is the best methodology to determine an updated salary level? Should the update derive from wage growth, cost-of-living increases, actual wages paid to employees, or some other measure?
  4. Should the Department more regularly update the standard salary level and the total-annual-compensation level for highly compensated employees? If so, how should these updates be made? How frequently should updates occur? What benefits, if any, could result from more frequent updates?

Realistically, this indicates it is going to be a long while yet before we see any changes to the overtime regulations, I do believe.

On August 28, 2018, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) issued 6 new opinion letters, 2 related to the FMLA which has not occurred since 2009. While I’ll write about them separately, this is exciting news! The letters provide employers with compliance assistance related to the administration of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). As I tell employers all the time, while their situation may be unique to them, you’d be surprised how frequently we address the same facts/issues (granted, the actual facts are not identical, but you get my drift) and thus we’re able to take our knowledge of how past situations worked out, and use them to handle the current situation. Similarly, the DOL’s opinion letters provide employers with guidance based on similar issues/facts and can be a great tool for employers when handling certain situations.

  1. Compensabilty of voluntarily attending benefit fairs and wellness activities (FLSA2018-20)
  2. Commissioned sales employee overtime exemption related to internet sales (FLSA2018-21)
  3. Volunteer status of nonprofit members when acting as credentialing examination graders (FLSA2018-22)
  4. Movie theater overtime exemption when dining services offered (FLSA2018-23)
  5. “No-fault” attendance policies and roll-off of attendance points related to FMLA (FMLA2018-1-A)
  6. Organ donors’ eligibility for FMLA (FMLA2018-2-A)

Check out my subsequent blogs for more information about the above.

With summer starting and with it the rise of seasonal workers, I thought it would be a good time to review the fluctuating work week method (FWM) that can be used to determine overtime pay under the Fair Labor Standards Act for employees who are paid on a salary basis and whose hours fluctuate week to week.  While this can be a very useful method of paying overtime to seasonal or other employees whose overtime fluctuates with certain times of the year, it also brings with it confusion.  Many times the confusion surrounding the calculation and application of the FWM exposes employers to potential liability under the Fair Labor Standards Act for failure to pay overtime wages.

What is the Fluctuating Work Week Method?

Under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), employers are required to pay employees time and a half (150%) of the “regular rate” for all hours over 40 hours per workweek. The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), the agency that enforces and interprets the FLSA, allows employers to pay employees who receive a fixed salary and work fluctuating hours, overtime at half (50%) the employee’s regular rate.

Which employers use the FWM calculation?

Generally, seasonal employers use the FWM to provide employees a predictable set salary regardless of the amount of hours they work each week (e.g. workers whose hours are influenced by the weather).

When can an employer use the FWM calculation?

In order to use the FWM calculation for overtime, the following conditions must be met:

  1. The employee’s salary must be sufficient to compensate him/her at a rate not less than minimum wage, regardless of how many hours worked, whether few or many.
  2. The employee receives a fixed salary – this does not change even if they work less than 40 hours a week (exception for unpaid leave of absence for entire day or more due to illness).
  3. The employee’s hours fluctuate from week to week.
  4. The employer and employee have a clear mutual understanding that the employee will be paid a salary and overtime at half his/her regular rate, regardless of how many hours worked.
  5. The employee received overtime equal to at least half his/her regular rate of pay for all hours worked over 40 hours.

How to calculate an employee’s regular rate

To calculate an employee’s regular rate of pay, divide the employee’s weekly salary by the total number of hours worked that week.  Overtime is then paid at 0.5 times that regular rate, since the 1.0 of the 1.5x has already been paid via the salary.  The more hours the employee works per week, the less the overtime rate (because it is spread over more hours).

Alternatively, the DOL allows an employer to calculate an employee’s regular rate based on a 40-hour workweek. Thus, an employer may divide the employee’s weekly salary by 40 hours, regardless of how many hours the employee worked that week. The DOL permits this calculation since the regular rate at 40 hours will always be higher than if the employer were to use the employee’s actual hours when the employee has worked overtime.

Should I use the FWM?

With a clear understanding of the conditions and calculations, the FWM can be a great tool for employers to save on costs, and provide year-round salary predictability for non-exempt employees.

On April 12, 2018, the U.S. DOL issued Opinion Letter FLSA2018-19 regarding the compensability of frequent breaks. As the DOL notes, most employers provide employees a 20 minute (or less) paid break in the morning, a 30 minute (or more) unpaid lunch break, and 20 minute paid afternoon break. In this case, several employees had a serious medical condition under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) that required a 15 minute break every hour.  Accordingly, out of an 8 hour day, the employees were only working 6 hours. The question posed by the employer was whether that time needed to be paid since it was less than 20 minutes (and the Supreme Court has held that rest breaks up to 20 minute are ordinarily compensable as they are for the benefit of the employer).

The DOL opined that an employee who uses intermittent FMLA for additional breaks need not be paid for that time outside of the normal 20 minute break provided to all employees (i.e. the morning and afternoon break).  The DOL concluded that neither the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) nor the FMLA requires that the breaks be paid, except that “employees who take FMLA-protected breaks must receive as many compensable rest breaks as their coworkers receive”. This opinion letter is a great reminder to employers of the interplay between the FMLA and FLSA (and often ADA).