Employers are often surprised to learn that employees may be terminated while on (or after) Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) or other type of protected leave. The key, however, is that there needs to be some sort of unrelated intervening event such as in the case of Naguib v. Trimark Hotel Corp. On September 12, 2018, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota’s decision in Trimark, that an employee was not wrongfully terminated while on Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) protected leave.

In this case, the plaintiff, Isis Naguib, was a long-time (1977-2014) Executive Housekeeper at Millennium Hotel, a Trimark brand hotel. During the past three years of her employment, Naguib essentially testified against the company in an unrelated case, her son filed a discrimination complaint against the hotel, and she took FMLA leave for hypertension. While the FMLA request was approved, she was suspended and terminated soon after her return, as a result of an internal investigation.

While Naguib was on FMLA leave, the fill-in Head of Housekeeping personally observed timekeeping irregularities, and notified management. Notably, it was determined that Naguib told housekeepers to round down their time and not record all overtime hours and Naguib altered time records without the proper company form. In addition, one housekeeper regularly sewed hotel linens at home off the clock. This practice resulted in lower payroll costs, and thus, a bonus for Naguib. Ultimately, Millennium compensated the employees for the docked overtime, disciplined three other managers (who did similar practices on a smaller scale), and terminated Naguib just twelve days after her return from FMLA. The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the District of Minnesota (the Honorable Judge Joan N. Ericksen) in its ruling that there were no specific links between her termination any any sort of discrimination, and that the investigation was only conducted as a result of irregularities found in her absence. Thus, the termination proper despite the other recent events.

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.

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.

When is the last time you seriously worked on updating your job descriptions…with input from the hiring manager for that job? On May 11, 2018, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals (this includes Minnesota), in Faidley v. United Parcel Service of America, Inc., held that the employer, United Parcel Service (UPS), was not required to accommodate an employee’s request to work no more than 8 hours a day, because an essential function of his job position was working overtime. Faidley had been working for UPS roughly 25 years, when a back injury began causing him problems while working shifts longer than 8-hours. Faidley’s doctor issued a permanent work restriction, limiting him to working no more than 8-hours a day. Faidley then requested an accommodation with UPS for his current position (package driver). UPS denied the accommodation request, determining that working overtime was an essential function of the package driver position.

In Faidley, overtime was determined to be an essential function of the employee’s job due to the unpredictable nature of workloads and weather, combined with the adverse effects UPS would suffer if packages were not delivered on time or other drivers had to be sent to finish a person’s delivery because that individual could only work 8 hours. Further, the job description and collective bargaining agreement with the union indicated that working overtime was a requirement for the package driver position. Based on this evidence, the Court agreed that working overtime was an essential function of a package driver, and UPS’s denial of an accommodation was not in violation of the American’s with Disabilities Act.

Thus, when presented with requests to accommodate an employee’s restricted hours due to a disability, keep in mind that you have a much better chance of having it affirmed (if sued) if you have documentation to support your position. The key here is that employers should make sure that this information is explicitly written in the job description and any collective bargaining agreement. Further, employers should be able to articulate objective reasons as to why the overtime is an essential function of the job. In other words, it may be time to dust off your job descriptions and look at them. Make sure they are current (jobs morph over time), and accurately reflect the job duties and essential functions. Be as specific and accurate (and reasonable) as possible. For example: work overtime up to 20 hours per week; lift up to 50 pounds; stand up to 10 hours, etc. The job description must reflect the job to be useful – do not try to be “Minnesota nice” with it and use as a recruiting tool. If 20 hours of overtime is essential, state it. This doesn’t mean you have a lost cause if you don’t specifically have it in there, but it sure will make the defense a lot stronger (and our job a lot easier!).

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.

In one of two DOL Opinion Letters issued on April 12, 2018, the DOL clarified an extremely frequent question employers have – when to pay a non-exempt (hourly) employee for travel time (and gave me a great excuse to finally post a picture of a Jeep!). In other words, when is travel time “work”.  DOL Opinion Letter FLSA2018-18 finally provides some guidance regarding the DOL’s interpretation with three very common scenarios. Specifically, we know compensable work time generally does not include commute time, but what happens when an hourly worker does not have a normal business to commute to but rather goes to different job sites? Well, we know that travel away from home communities is worktime when it “cuts across the employee’s workday”, which includes the same normal work hours on a Weekend day as well (i.e. 9 to 5). Thus, the DOL has long held it does not consider work time that time spent as a passenger outside of regular working hours (see my earlier blog). However, what happens when employees don’t have a fixed location or set hours each day?

OPINION LETTER FACTS: At this employer, hourly technicians do not have a fixed location but work at varying customer locations each day. They have no fixed schedule, though they often start at 7 am, and often work between 8 and 12 hours, sometimes having to spend the night and complete the service the following morning. Occasionally technicians travel out of town for training. They are provided with vehicles to use for personal and business and covers all fuel and maintenance.

Scenario 1: “An hourly technician travels by plane from home state to New Orleans on a Sunday for a training class beginning at 8:00 a.m. on Monday at the corporate office. The class generally lasts Monday through Friday, with travel home on Friday after class is over, or, occasionally, on Saturday when Friday flights are not available.”

  • The key question is how to determine when travel time is compensable when there is no regular workday.
  • The DOL “scrutinizes” claims that employees don’t have regular or normal work hours, as after reviewing time records usually work patterns emerge (in other words it is a loosing argument for 99% of employers that there is no normal workday)
  • Assuming there is no regular workday, an employer can choose the average start and end times for the employee’s workday.  The employer and employee (or representative) can also negotiate and agree on a reasonable amount of time which travel outside of home community is compensable. When these methods are used, no violation will be found for compensating employees only during those hours.
  • If the employee chooses to drive instead of ride as a passenger in a plane, the employer may count as “hours worked” time spent driving the car or time that would have had to have counted as hours worked if the employee had taken the plane.
  • Time between a hotel and the remote work site is considered home-to-work travel and not compensable.

Scenario 2: “An hourly technician travels from home to the office to get a job itinerary and then travels to the customer location. The travel time from home to office varies depending on where the technician lives and can range from 15 minutes to 1 hour or more. All of this travel is in an assigned company vehicle.”

  • Time spent commuting between home and work is not compensable. Travel between site after arriving at work is. If an employee is required to report to a meeting place or pick up tools, travel from that site to the job site is part of the day’s work, regardless of contract, custom or practice.

Scenario 3: “Hourly technicians drive from home to multiple different customer locations on any given day.”

  • Same outcome as above.

Again, it’s still very fact specific, so keep in mind that this is an opinion letter related to one employer – but can be used as guidance for the rest.

The Wage and Hour Division (WHD) launched their new program, the Payroll Audit Independent Determination (PAID) program on Tuesday, April 3, 2018. As I wrote about previously, PAID is the WHD’s 6-month pilot program that allows employers to self-audit their payroll practices. If an employer discovers an overtime or minimum wage violation under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), PAID allows them to voluntarily report it to the WHD. The goal behind PAID is to encourage resolution of claims promptly without litigation.  The catch to the program is employees are not required to accept the back wages from the employer or release any private right of action against the employer. Thus, an employer could still be subjected to a lawsuit. Additionally, the DOL can reject participation in the program and conduct a full investigation after the employer voluntarily reported a violation. As I said in my last post, participating in the program is more like playing a game of Risk than a get out of jail free card…

On April 2, 2018, the Supreme Court ruled in Encino Motorcars v. Navarro that car dealership service advisors (individuals that consult and sell customers on servicing solutions at car dealerships), are exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act’s (FLSA) overtime requirements. While this is certainly a win for car dealerships, the biggest win for all employers is the Supreme Court’s holding in this ruling that the FLSA is not to be read narrowly, but “fairly”:

Because the FLSA gives no ‘textual indication’ that its exemptions should be construed narrowly, ‘there is no reason to give [them] anything other than a fair (rather than a ‘narrow’) interpretation.'”

Since 1966, service advisors have been deemed exempt under an exemption added to the FLSA covering “any salesman, partsman, or mechanic primarily engaged in selling or servicing automobiles [. . .].” However, confusion sprung when, in 2011, the Department of Labor (DOL) issued a rule rejecting the interpretation of “salesman” to include service advisors.

Thus, in 2012, relying on the DOL’s rule, current and former Encino service advisors sued the Mercedes Benz dealer, claiming Encino violated the FLSA for failing to pay them overtime. The case has been bouncing around ever since. In 2016, the Supreme Court reversed the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, finding it improper for courts to defer to the 2011 DOL rule, because “the regulation undermined significant reliance interests in the automobile industry by changing the treatment of service advisors without a sufficiently reasoned explanation.” Accordingly, this ruling finally puts the issue to rest – service advisors are exempt from the FLSA’s overtime requirement.