As food industry businesses are well aware, in Minnesota, you cannot take a credit for tips when computing minimum wage, nor can an employer require tip pooling (Surly Brewing recently paid $2.5 Million in back wages for alleged tip pooling).  In response to cities in Minnesota passing or introducing higher minimum wage ordinances (such as $15 in Minneapolis and St. Paul), Republican lawmakers introduced a bill that would allow employers to pay their tipped employees a lower minimum wage. The bill is in response to concerns from primarily restaurants and bars, regarding the strain a higher minimum wage will incur on them.  The House committee is currently debating this proposed bill.

Under the bill, large employers (employers with annual gross receipts of $500,000 or more), may cap an employee’s minimum wage at $9.65, so as long as the employee makes an average of $14 per hour, including tips.  For small employers (employers with annual gross receipts of $500,000 or less), an employer may cap an employee’s base wage at $7.87 if the employee makes an average of $12 per hour, once the tips are included. If an employee does not make $14 or $12 per hour, depending on the employer’s size, the employer is required to pay them the higher of the Minnesota or federal minimum wage. Stay tuned!

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).

On March 6, 2018, the U.S. Department of Labor announced a new nationwide pilot program called “PAID” – Payroll Audit Independent Determination. For an initial 6 month trial period, employers can self-audit their wage and hour practices.  If violations are found, an employer can voluntarily report it to the DOL’s Wage and Hour Division (WHD), in hopes of resolving the potential violations without liquidated damages penalties (usually an amount equal to the back wages due) and with a release of claims (as to the violations only).

Why? The DOL is hopeful that employers who discover violations will come forward and pay the employee 100% due promptly, in exchange for a settlement waiver and no liquidated damages, lawsuit, attorneys’ fees, etc. In turn, employees are paid faster than in a lawsuit or DOL investigation, and 100% of what is allegedly due.

Who is eligible? All employers subject to the FLSA. The program cannot be used for any pending investigation, arbitration, lawsuit, or threatened lawsuit (with an attorney involved). Also repeat offenders are ineligible.

What’s the catch? The DOL notes that it is an employee’s right to not accept the back wages, and not release any private right of action against the employer (and they cannot be retaliated against for such refusal). Further, unlike a typical litigation settlement release, the release must be narrowly tailored to only the identified violations (i.e. overtime, minimum wage, off-the-clock, misclassification, recordkeeping (for every violation)), and time period for which the back wages are paid. The WHD can still conduct future investigations of the employer, and employers cannot use the program to repeatedly resolve the same violations. So, in reality, an employer could notify 100 employees that they were paid incorrectly, and 90 accept and 10 reject and file a lawsuit seeking liquidated damages and attorneys’ fees (since they were just told by the employer that they “stole” their wages).

That being said, an employer could, as always, pay the employee the alleged back wages due in a supplemental check, and thus cut off their alleged damages as to that portion (which makes it a lot less attractive as a case to a plaintiff’s attorney), but they will not get a release. Sure, the employee cannot be forced to cash the check, but that would be a remote occurrence. Of course, the employee could still sue, stating they are entitled to interest or liquidated damages, etc., but such suit would likely not sit as well before a court without additional claims (i.e. you were paid what you were due, why are you taking up our limited judicial resources…).

How does the process work? Employers wanting to participate must review the program information and compliance assistance materials that will be available on the PAID website.  The employer then conducts the audit and identifies the potential violations, affected employees, time frame, and back wages. Next, the employer contacts WHD to discuss the issues, and the WHD determines if it will allow the employer to participate in the program. If allowed, the employer must then submit information such as the backup calculations, scope of violations for release, certification that this is all in good faith and the materials have been reviewed, and that practices will be adjusted to avoid the same violation in the future. The WHD finally issues a summary of unpaid wages (this is likely the same form they use today except no liquidated damages will be assessed).  KEY – once this process has been completed, the employer must issue the back wages by the end of the next full pay period.  Thus, employers should be careful to not begin/end the process until ready and able to pay.

In reality…while some are calling it a “get out of jail free card” for employers, I really don’t see it. An employer who discovers an error after a good faith internal investigation can chose to report itself to the DOL. Now, they are on the DOL’s radar with an admission that they believe they have paid their employees in error. The DOL can reject participation in the program and conduct a full investigation. If the DOL allows participation, all affected employees will be notified of the error (who may not have otherwise known), and can chose to opt-out and file a private lawsuit against the employer that just came clean. Further, neither relieves the employer of a future DOL investigation. Get out of jail free card? I think not. More like playing a game of Risk.

As I briefly mentioned in my last post on the Minneapolis minimum wage increase, a Hennepin County District Court denied Graco Inc., the Chamber of Commerce, and two other business groups’ request for a temporary injunction. While the business groups dropped out of the lawsuit after the court denied the temporary injunction, Graco continued the suit, claiming the Minnesota state law mandating a lower minimum wage preempted the Minneapolis ordinance.

On February 27, 2018, the District Court ruled in favor of the City of Minneapolis, finding the Minnesota Fair Labor Standards Act (MFLS) merely sets a floor not a ceiling regarding minimum wage regulation. As a result, the Court held: “The Minneapolis Minimum Wage Ordinance is not repugnant to, but in harmony with the MFLS [. . .] because they both [are] minimum wage law[s] aimed at protecting the health and well-being of workers.” The Minnesota District Court has joined the majority of courts, including Wisconsin, in rejecting preemption challenges to city ordinances mandating higher minimum wages.

Employers should make sure they are in compliance with all relevant city, state, and federal laws governing minimum wage. As a reminder, the second phase of the Minneapolis minimum wage increase goes in effect on July 1, 2018. At this time, small employers (100 or fewer employees) must pay employees a minimum wage of $10.25 per hour, while large employers (more than 100 employees) must pay $11.25 per hour.

Being the wage and hour geek that I am, which I have fully embraced, I subscribe to the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry Bulletin. Today’s bulletin speaks directly to employers, so I thought, why not pass it along. Besides, now I have completed No. 10 (keep reading), and feel like I have accomplished something today after I made my bed this morning (watch at 4:45: Naval Adm. William H. McRaven, Ninth Commander of U.S.Special Operations Command 2014 Commencement Address to the University of Texas at Austin).

So, here you go, courtesy of MnDOLI, 10 tips to not steal from employees:

Ten tips to help employers avoid committing wage theft

  1. Pay your employees at least the state minimum wage. New rates became effective Jan. 1, 2018 (see current requirements at www.dli.mn.gov/LS/MinWage.asp).  Employers operating in the city of Minneapolis need to be aware of the Minneapolis Minimum Wage Ordinance (see http://minimumwage.minneapolismn.gov).
  2. Pay your employees for all hours worked. Employees must be paid for employer-required training and for time needed to prepare to perform work, such as restocking supplies and performing safety checks. If you require employees to meet at a centralized location before driving to a worksite, pay the employee for the drive-time from the location to the worksite. Employers cannot require employees to remain at work and “punch in” only when it gets busy, “punching out” when business gets slow.
  3. Pay your hourly employees for overtime when their work hours exceed 48 hours in a work week. Federal law requires some hourly employees to receive overtime after working 40 hours in a work week. Some employees are exempt from this requirement. More information about federal and state overtime requirements is online at www.dli.mn.gov/LS/Overtime.asp.
  4. Pay your employees at least every 31 days.
  5. Do not misclassify employees as independent contractors. Such misclassification not only adversely impacts the employees, it also creates a competitive disadvantage for employers that comply with state laws related to workers’ compensation, unemployment insurance and tax withholding.
  6. Do not take unlawful deductions from your employees’ paychecks. Deductions for lost or damaged property, cash shortages, tools or uniform expenses generally cannot be made.
  7. Do not require your employees to pool or share tips.
  8. If you have a question, call us. We are available by phone at (651) 284-5070, Monday through Friday, 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.
  9. Get more information online. Visit www.dli.mn.gov/LaborLaw.asp for information about all Minnesota labor standards laws.
  10. Share these tips. Encourage other employers and associations to subscribe to our Wage and Hour Bulletin at www.dli.mn.gov/LS/Bulletin.asp.

That about sums it up (though we know it is never that easy), and I have accomplished making my bed and No. 10.

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).

The DOL started 2018 with a bang, adopting the primary beneficiary test in lieu of the previous six-part test for determining whether interns and students are employees for purposes of the FLSA. This is a pretty big deal for employers desiring to use unpaid internships. The decision to adopt the primary beneficiary test comes after numerous federal courts rejected the DOL’s six-part test that required an intern or student to meet all six factors in order to be exempt under the FLSA requirements. As a practical matter, most internship programs failed to meet at least one of the six factors resulting in the intern being consider an employee and subject to minimum wage and overtime requirements.

The new seven factor primary beneficiary test analyzes “the ‘economic reality’ of the intern-employer relationship to determine which party is the ‘primary beneficiary’ of the relationship”.  Here are the seven factors:

  1. The extent to which the intern and the employer clearly understand that there is no expectation of compensation. Any promise of compensation, express or implied, suggests that the intern is an employee—and vice versa.
  2. The extent to which the internship provides training that would be similar to that which would be given in an educational environment, including the clinical and other hands-on training provided by educational institutions.
  3. The extent to which the internship is tied to the intern’s formal education program by integrated coursework or the receipt of academic credit.
  4. The extent to which the internship accommodates the intern’s academic commitments by corresponding to the academic calendar.
  5. The extent to which the internship’s duration is limited to the period in which the internship provides the intern with beneficial learning.
  6. The extent to which the intern’s work complements, rather than displaces, the work of paid employees while providing significant educational benefits to the intern.
  7. The extent to which the intern and the employer understand that the internship is conducted without entitlement to a paid job at the conclusion of the internship.

Since no single factor is dispositive, the DOL now has greater flexibility to determine the relationship of the employer and intern or student on a holistic case-by-case basis.

The first phase of the Minneapolis minimum wage ordinance took effect on January 1, 2018. As I wrote about earlier here and here, all employers located in Minneapolis must comply with the Minneapolis Minimum Wage Ordinance, which trumps both the Federal and State minimum wage laws because it mandates a higher minimum wage. Since, a Hennepin County District Court judge denied the Chamber of Commerce’s request for a temporary injunction, large employers (more than 100 employees) located in Minneapolis need to pay a minimum wage of $10 per hour. Under the Ordinance, small employers (100 or fewer employees) are not subjected to a wage increase until the second phase of the ordinance on July 1, 2018. At that time, small employers must pay a minimum wage of $10.25 per hour, while large employers must pay $11.25 per hour. As a reminder, employers should be sure to familiarize themselves with all wage law and ordinances that may apply to your business.