Fair Labor Standards Act

As 2018 comes to a close, it is a great time for employers to address lingering issues that have been on the back burner and start “fresh” in the new year. A new year is a great time to roll out changes for both administration purposes and for employees; new year, new policies. Here are some items you may want to consider auditing internally and bringing up to current if need be for a January 1, 2019 revision date:

  • Wage disparities (male/female/minority)
  • Job classification (exempt, non-exempt, independent contractor)
  • Job descriptions (should reflect what the employee actually does – jobs morph over time)
  • Incentive compensation / bonus plans (the far majority I review need significant modification as they are written by sales folks and not HR/legal and thus leave out at-will language, deductions, prepayments, “earned” versus “accrued” and payout terms with absences, discipline, termination, etc.)
  • Minimum wage increases (State, Minneapolis, St. Paul)
  • Safe and Sick Leave Act ordinances (Minneapolis, St. Paul, Duluth)
  • Changing paid time off methods / calculations (from up front to accrual, etc. – and in compliance with any applicable ordinance)
  • Overtime (calculated weekly, all hours paid, no flex time between workweeks) – also, the new federal overtime rule is expected to be published in March 2019 – stay tuned on that (I would only be guessing as to how the DOL is going to roll it out).
  • Recordkeeping (best practices being followed; exempt/salaried employees can be made to record their time – which is very good to have if their classification is challenged in the future)
  • Wage deduction / loans / tuition reimbursement policies

With Thanksgiving tomorrow and Christmas right around the corner, employees start to question holiday time off and pay (or lack thereof). In Minnesota, there is no requirement that employers provide certain days off, with or without pay. Accordingly, employers just need to follow their policy (best practices – have it written), whatever it is. If employees must work on a holiday, employers must pay them for that time worked, but may also chose to pay an additional half-time or double time and/or additional PTO to be taken another day. Those hours worked count towards overtime. In addition, the additional pay will change the regular rate for overtime purposes and thus, the hourly overtime rate will increase. For employers who provide time off without pay, or time off with pay, those hours are not “hours worked” and thus, do not count towards overtime. Key here is that your policy is written in a way that allows you flexibility as business needs arise. If your policy is not always followed, it is time to dust it off and revise it to be consistent with actual business practices.

On November 8, 2018, the DOL issued Opinion Letter FLSA2018-24, addressing the question of when additional payments to an exempt employee based on an hourly, daily or shift basis defeats the professional exemption. In short, an exempt employee may have a “guaranteed salary”, but then also receive additional compensation on an hourly, daily, or shift basis, so long as there is a “reasonable relationship” between the guaranteed amount and actual wages earned. Generally, I tell employers not to ever pay a salaried employee based on hours worked; this is the exception to that rule – so long as it is properly done.

Usual earnings between 1 to 1.5 times the guaranteed salary will typically satisfy this test. (i.e. the employee is guaranteed $500 a week and typically earns $600 to $750 a week). The Court did not address earnings between 1.5 times and 1.8 times the guaranteed salary.  The Court noted that earnings more than that (i.e. 1.8 times or double) may not have a “reasonable relationship,” and thus, may defeat the exemption (and thus, minimum wage and overtime applies). Yet, no bright-line rule exists, and the DOL will look at it on an employee-specific basis (not as a group). Keep in mind that this test does not apply to other payments made to an exempt employee such as bonuses, commissions, etc., which do not have the “reasonable relationship” requirement.

On November 14, 2018, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals held in Baouch v. Werner Enterprises, Inc. that per diem travel payments made to truck drivers driving away from home at night as reimbursement for travel expenses are “wages,” even though not taxed as part of an “accountable plan” under Treas. Reg. §1.62-2(c)(2). To qualify as an “accountable plan” a payment plan has to meet the IRS’ business connection, substantiation and return of excess expenses requirements. The Court held that the payments under the accountable plan were part of the drivers’ “regular rate,” as they were made as remuneration for work performed under the FLSA. The Court held that representations made by the employer to the IRS were not inconsistent with the FLSA’s governing the calculation of regular rates for the purposes of minimum wages. As the payments were made based on miles driven, and thus, hours worked, the payments were correctly included in the regular rate calculation, even though the primary effect of the payments were to cause participating drivers to take home more pay due to the non-payment of taxes on the payments.  The Court concluded that “per diem payments that vary with the amount of work performed are part of the regular rate.”

So, what does this mean?  Well, an employer who has an “accountable plan” for the payment of mileage reimbursement may be able to include that payment as “wages” for establishing the “regular rate” under the FLSA for purposes of meeting minimum wage.  However – you can’t have your cake and eat it too.  More often an employer argues that per diem is not part of the regular rate (as that increases overtime). Accordingly, employers should be careful that if per diem payments under an accountable plan are tied to hours worked, they may indeed be included in the regular rate for purposes of overtime. Finally, the Court noted such an analysis should be reviewed on a case-by-case basis, and look at factors such as whether the payments were unrestricted (employees need not report expenses or provide receipts and could spend the money as they liked) and the purpose and intent of the payments.

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).