Fair Labor Standards Act

Authored by Robert Whitman

Seyfarth Synopsis: The Second Circuit has upheld summary judgment against magazine interns seeking payment as “employees” under the FLSA.

In an end-of-semester decision that may represent the final grade for unpaid interns seeking minimum wage and overtime pay under the FLSA, the Second Circuit has firmly rejected claims by Hearst magazine interns challenging their unpaid status.

The interns served on an unpaid basis for various magazines published by Hearst Corporation, either during college or for a few months between college and graduate school. They sued, claiming they were employees because they provided work of value to Hearst and received little professional benefit in return.

Following discovery, District Judge J. Paul Oetken rejected the interns’ claim of employee status and granted summary judgment to Hearst. On appeal, the Second Circuit framed the question succinctly: “whether Hearst furnishes bona fide for‐credit internships or whether it exploits student‐interns to avoid hiring and compensating entry‐level employees.” If the former were true, the interns would be deemed trainees, who could permissibly be unpaid; if the latter were true, the interns would be entitled to minimum wage and overtime pay.

In support of their appeal, the interns argued that many of the tasks they performed were “menial and repetitive,” that they received “little formal training,” and that they “mastered their tasks within a couple weeks, but did the same work for the duration of the internship.” These points, they contended, outweighed their receipt of college credit and other indicia of an academic flavor to their experience.

The appeals court, in Wang v. Hearst Corp., appeared to have little trouble upholding the grant of summary judgment in favor of Hearst. Applying its test for assessing whether interns are employees or trainees, the court held that the factual record favored non-employee status on six of the seven pertinent factors, enough to sustain the judgment in the company’s favor.

Those seven factors, as loyal blog readers will recall from prior posts, first appeared in the court’s 2016 decision in Glatt v. Fox Searchlight, in which the court held that the “primary beneficiary” test governed whether interns were considered employees or trainees. The Glatt court rejected the Department of Labor’s multi-factor test and devised its own:

  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 internʹs formal education program by integrated coursework or the receipt of academic credit;
  4. The extent to which the internship accommodates the internʹs academic commitments by corresponding to the academic calendar;
  5. The extent to which the internshipʹs duration is limited to the period in which the internship provides the intern with beneficial learning;
  6. The extent to which the internʹs 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.

The factors are non-exhaustive, and as the Second Circuit reiterated in the current case, need not all point in the same direction to support a conclusion of non-employee status.

The “heart of the dispute on appeal” was factor two — whether the interns received “training that would be similar to that which would be given in an educational environment.” The plaintiffs argued that, in order for this factor to weigh in favor of non-employee status, the internships would have to provide “education that resembles university pedagogy to the exclusion of tasks that apply specific skills to the professional environment.”

The court was not convinced. It recognized that the Hearst internships varied in many respects from classroom learning. But as it had said earlier in Glatt, this was precisely the point. “The [plaintiffs’] tacit assumption is that professions, trades, and arts are or should be just like school; but many useful internships are designed to correct that impression…. [P]ractical skill may entail practice, and an intern gains familiarity with an industry by day to day professional experience.”

Perhaps the most significant part of the ruling comes at the end, where the court discusses the propriety of summary judgment. The interns, and various amici curiae (unions, advocacy groups, and professors) who advocated on their behalf, argued strenuously that various “mixed inferences” on the seven internship factors precluded a grant of summary judgment. While acknowledging that application of the factors required some weighing of evidence, the court nonetheless said this did not mean the case required a trial.

“Status as an ‘employee’ for the purposes of the FLSA is a matter of law,” the court said, “and under our summary judgment standard, a district court can strike a balance on the totality of the circumstances to rule for one side or the other.” It continued: “Many of our FLSA tests that are fact‐sensitive and require the judge to assign weight are routinely disposed of on summary judgment [citing cases]. The amici contend that summary judgment is inapposite in all unpaid intern cases that turn on competing factors. Such a rule would foreclose weighing of undisputed facts in this commonplace fashion.”

In many ways, the Wang decision may be the epilogue to a textbook that has already been written. After the Glatt decision in 2016, the number of lawsuits filed by interns seeking unpaid compensation dropped precipitously. That may have been due to Glatt’s highly-employer-friendly resolution, both as to the merits of the employee-or-intern question and its pronouncements on the high threshold for collective/class certification on the question. Or perhaps it was due to the decisions by employers, reacting to the onslaught of intern lawsuits seeking pay under the FLSA and state law, to curtail or limit their internship programs or to pay interns compensation at or above minimum wage. Whatever the reason, the Wang decision cannot be heartening for plaintiffs’ lawyers, and the days of widespread lawsuits by interns are likely over.

Still, companies who remain interested in sponsoring unpaid interns should not get complacent. Paying minimum wage, of course, remains a fail proof antidote to the possibility of FLSA claims by these individuals. But if that is not an option, companies should take care to ensure that their programs have primarily educational aims and coordinate wherever possible with the interns’ educational institutions to ensure they meet the factors articulated by the court. Otherwise, the interns may be the ones teaching them a lesson.

Co-authored by Noah Finkel and Cheryl Luce

Seyfarth Synopsis: On Monday, the DOL issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking announcing rescission of a rule that regulates tip pooling by employers who do not take the tip credit.

The DOL has issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking regarding the tip pooling regulations of the Fair Labor Standards Act. The FLSA allows employers to take a tip credit toward their minimum wage obligations, and employee tips may be pooled together, but pooling of tips is allowed only “among employees who customarily and regularly receive tips.” 29 U.S.C. § 203(m). The DOL took the tip pooling law a step further in 2011 when it promulgated a regulation that prohibits employers from operating tip pools even when they do not take the tip credit. The regulation states: “Tips are the property of the employee whether or not the employer has taken a tip credit under section 3(m) of the FLSA.” 29 C.F.R. § 531.52.

The DOL’s tip pooling rule has been unpopular with courts—and for good reason, as we have previously noted. Indeed, several federal courts have found that it is overbroad and invalid, excluding the Ninth Circuit. In the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, the DOL agrees with the holdings of most courts and, while not outright stamping the rule as “overbroad” or beyond the DOL’s authority, states that the DOL is concerned “about the scope of its current tip regulations” and “is also seriously concerned that it incorrectly construed the statute in promulgating the tip regulations that apply to” employers who do not take the tip credit. The DOL’s about-face is also motivated by policy concerns. The Notice explains that removing the rule “provides such employers and employees greater flexibility in determining the pay policies for tipped and non-tipped workers [and] allows them to reduce wage disparities among employees who all contribute to the customers’ experience and to incentivize all employees to improve that experience regardless of their position.” Finally, the DOL notes that the increase in state laws prohibiting tip credits and the volume of litigation over this issue contributed to its decision to put the rule on the chopping block.

The end of the rule does not come as a surprise as both the DOL and courts have sounded the death knell this year. On July 20, 2017, the DOL issued a nonenforcement policy to not enforce the rule with respect to employees who are paid at least minimum wage. Additionally, the National Restaurant Association filed a petition for certiorari with the Supreme Court asking for review of the Ninth Circuit’s decision, which is still pending.

The DOL announced that if the rule is finalized as proposed, the rule would qualify as an “EO 13771 deregulatory action” under the Trump administration’s “two-for-one” executive order that requires federal agencies to cut two existing regulations for every new regulation they implement. Once the proposal is published in the Federal Register, interested parties will have the opportunity to provide comments regarding the Department’s proposal within 30 days. Only after these steps is the rule made final.

Co-authored by: Steve Shardonofsky and John P. Phillips

Seyfarth Synopsis: On November 7, 2017, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Save Local Businesses Act. If passed by the Senate, the bill would overturn Obama-era decisions and agency guidance broadly defining and holding separate, unrelated companies liable as “joint employers” under federal wage & hour and labor law. Perhaps more importantly, the bill signifies a broader trend to provide more clear guidance and roll-back various Obama-era rules on wage & hour issues.

The Broad Approach to “Joint Employment” Under the Obama Administration

Under the prior Administration, and particularly during the later years, employers who had traditionally relied on contract labor, temporary workers, staffing agencies, subcontractors, and franchise arrangements found themselves in the crosshairs of federal agencies and regulators. Traditionally, joint employer status was found where separate, unrelated entities shared responsibility and exercised direct control over the employment relationship, including decisions affecting the terms and conditions of employment. In that case, both entities could be held jointly liable for violations of wage & hour and other employment laws. The Obama Administration upended this traditional test, however.

In August 2015, the NLRB issued its much-discussed Browning-Ferris decision (addressed here), where the Board adopted an expansive definition of joint employment focusing on the right to control the terms and conditions of employment and the indirect exercise of those rights. (Seyfarth Shaw LLP is leading the appeal of Browning-Ferris to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.) In 2015 and 2016, then-WHD Administrator Dr. David Weil issued two separate Administrator’s Interpretations (“AIs”) concerning independent contractors and joint employment. In 2015, in an effort to reduce the classification of workers as independent contractors and increase the number of workers subject to the FLSA’s minimum wage and overtime requirements, Dr. Weil issued guidance espousing a broad interpretation of who qualifies as an “employee” under the FLSA and highlighting the DOL’s position that almost all workers are employees. In 2016, Dr. Weil followed-up with guidance emphasizing the DOL’s position that joint employment must be determined based on the economic realities instead of (in their view) artificial corporate or contractual arrangements, including situations involving “horizontal” and “vertical” joint employment (discussed here). This guidance focused on the economic realities of a business’s relationship with a given worker, especially noting that indirect control (e.g., control excised solely through a staffing company) can be sufficient for a finding of joint employment. While the AIs were not entitled to judicial deference, we anticipated that some judges would treat Dr. Weil’s words as gospel.

As we previously reported, the broader tests espoused by the NLRB and the WHD exposed employers to a myriad of new wage and hour liabilities, investigations, and enforcement actions, and were especially relevant to companies that outsource work, utilize staffing agencies and contractors, or employ a franchisor/franchisee business model. If recent activity by Trump’s DOL and Congress is any indication, a shift in regulatory enforcement and focus is well underway.

The Winds of “Joint Employment” Are Shifting

As we reported here and here, this summer the DOL withdrew its AIs on joint employment and independent contractors. More recently, on November 7, 2017, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Save Local Businesses Act by a vote of 242-181, including yes votes from eight Democrats. The bill clarifies the standard for “joint employer” status under the FLSA and the NLRA, and returns to a traditional test that requires “direct, actual, immediate,” and “significant” control over the essential terms and conditions of employment, such as hiring, discharging employees, determining rates of pay and benefits, day-to-day supervision, and administering employee discipline.

Implications for Employers

The DOL’s decision to withdraw its AIs and the passage of the Save Local Businesses Act are welcome changes for employers who faced significant liability and uncertainty under the Obama-era rules. Although the bill itself still faces a tough road in the Senate—where it will require Democratic support to reach 60 votes and avoid a filibuster—it would represent a significant shift in the federal government’s focus. Even if the bill stalls, it nevertheless solidifies a broader regulatory and enforcement trend that may prompt federal courts to return to the traditional and more predictable joint employer test under the FLSA.

Full passage of the Save Local Businesses Act in Congress and signature by the President, however, will not be a panacea for these thorny joint-employer issues. Many states, such as California, still have broad joint-employer tests under their respective wage-hour laws. Courts will also continue to grapple with the proper application and interpretation of these rules, as evidenced by a recent decision from the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals purporting to define joint employment even more broadly than the Obama Administration. Furthermore, the plaintiffs’ bar will continue to push the outer contours of the law in their search to apply joint employer principles more broadly and thereby reach the “deep pockets” of franchisors and other principals. Regardless of what happens to the Save Local Businesses Act, we foresee continued potential exposure and litigation in this arena. Employers—and particularly those in industries that make heavy use of franchises, subcontractors, and staffing agencies—should remain engaged and focused on these issues, and continue to scrutinize their independent contractor relationships, staffing arrangements with third parties, and related contracts.

Co-authored by Cheryl Luce, Kyla Miller, and Noah Finkel

Seyfarth Synopsis: A recent decision highlights why the FLSA is not always the remedial statute created to protect low-income workers by holding that four commission-based sales representatives, each earning six figures, were not exempt from the overtime requirements because they were not paid on a salary basis.

Our readers are well aware that under the FLSA, employers are required to pay employees overtime equal to time and one-half the regular rate for all hours worked over 40 hours in a workweek unless an exemption applies. When making exempt classification decisions, the focus tends to be on whether employees are doing the kind of work that would satisfy the applicable duties test and whether employees are making enough to satisfy the income thresholds. But the FLSA exemptions don’t concern only how much employees are paid, but also how they are paid. Though sometimes overlooked, technical requirements about how employees are paid can carry the day in a misclassification lawsuit, leaving a trail of decisions that often seem contrary to the purpose set out by the creators of the FLSA. This was one such decision.

This decision illustrates how the FLSA often is applied in a way that is a far cry from what it was originally intended to be: an Act passed during the Great Depression to ensure a living wage for working Americans. In this case, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee denied the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, finding that four highly compensated sales representatives, who were paid on a commission basis, were not exempt from FLSA’s overtime provisions despite the fact that the plaintiffs each earned well over $100,000 per year. In fact, one sales representative topped out at over $900,000 per year. Across the relevant period, the plaintiffs’ compensation averaged about $470,00 per year.

The defendants argued that the plaintiffs were exempt from overtime wages under the highly compensated employee exception. Under this exemption, the employee must perform office or non-manual work and be paid a total annual compensation of $100,000 or more (which must include at least $455 per week paid on a salary or fee basis) and must customarily and regularly perform at least one of the duties of an exempt executive, administrative or professional employee. The defendants argued that even though the plaintiffs were paid by commissions on sales, the highly compensated employee exemption applies because the commissions are “fees,” so they were paid on a fee basis. The plaintiffs argued that the highly compensated employee exemption applies only when employees are paid on a salary basis and that the commissions they received were not “fees.” The court agreed with the plaintiffs, holding that the plaintiffs’ compensation did not meet the highly compensated employee exemption’s salary basis test.

We previously have discussed courts’ construction of the FLSA as “remedial and humanitarian in purpose and must not be interpreted or applied in a narrow, grudging manner.” We have argued that courts apply this construction inconsistently and often illogically. And this case serves as one more challenge to the unsupported dicta that we find in many cases stating that, because the FLSA is “remedial and humanitarian,” its exemptions must be “narrowly construed.” Here, we have employees who are very high earners, with two employees making close to one million dollars in a single year, and whose employer is now forced to pay them additional compensation and liquidated damages (and a fee petition for their lawyers is sure to come next). The court construed the FLSA exemptions against these employees narrowly, and we can discern no remedial or humanitarian purpose that the FLSA is serving here. Rather, this decision reflects the FLSA as a statue riddled with technical traps and rigid rules that do not necessarily serve to ensure a living wage for working Americans.

Authored By Alex Passantino

As we’ve reported previously, among the items the Department of Labor identified earlier this year in its Regulatory Agenda was a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) seeking to rescind portions of a 2011 rule that restricted tip pooling for employers who do not use the tip credit to satisfy their minimum wage obligations. On October 24, 2017, that NPRM was sent to the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) for review and approval. One of the cases challenging the validity of the 2011 rulemaking may be on its way to the Supreme Court, with the Administration’s response to a cert petition due on November 7. With that deadline looming, it’s possible that the Administration is seeking to moot the issue before the Supreme Court has the chance to address some of the issues related to agency deference.

After OIRA clears the NPRM, it will be sent to the Federal Register for the public to provide comments in response to the Department’s proposal. At that time, we’ll know the specifics of the proposal and will be able to provide more guidance on what this means for employers. Stay tuned.

 

Authored By Robert Whitman

Seyfarth Synopsis: The Second Circuit will soon decide key issues for FLSA practitioners: whether settlements pursuant to an Offer of Judgment are subject to court review and approval, and whether the standards for final collective certification of FLSA claims are different from those for class certification of state law wage claims under Rule 23.

Two cases now before the Second Circuit, one involving a small Japanese restaurant, the other involving Mexican fast-casual chain Chipotle, offer the court the opportunity to experience the gustatory pleasures of two prime cuts of FLSA procedural law: enforceability of settlements and the standards for collective certification. It is a veritable feast for wage and hour geeks in the New York metropolitan area and beyond.

In Yu v. Hasaki, the court on October 23 accepted for interlocutory review the question of whether a district court must approve the settlement of FLSA claims when the settlement is procured through an Offer of Judgment under FRCP 68.

Yu involves FLSA and New York Labor Law claims by a sushi chef. To settle the case, the defendants made an offer of judgment, which the plaintiff accepted. After the parties advised the court, Judge Jesse Furman ordered them to submit their agreement for his approval, along with letters explaining why the settlement is fair and reasonable. The defendants objected, arguing that, under Rule 68, court approval of an accepted offer of judgment is mandatory, leaving no role for the judge in reviewing the agreement’s terms. They based their argument on the language in Rule 68 that, if a plaintiff accepts an offer, the clerk “must then enter judgment.”

In effect, the defendants contended that Rule 68 creates an exception to the Second Circuit’s decision in Cheeks v. Freeport Pancake House, in which the court held that judicial approval of settlement terms is mandatory for dismissal of FLSA claims with prejudice and that many otherwise-customary settlement provisions, such as confidentiality and general releases, are not permissible. The U.S. Department of Labor weighed in as an amicus curiae, arguing that judicial approval is required, even when the settlement arises out of an accepted Rule 68 offer.

Judge Furman agreed, holding that the concerns articulated in Cheeks apply equally under Rule 68 as they do in standard FLSA settlements. But because other district judges had held differently, he certified his order for interlocutory appeal under 28 U.S.C. § 1292(b), holding, among other things, that there was a substantial basis for disagreement on the issue. The Second Circuit accepted the case for review, stating that the decision “clearly merits interlocutory review under section 1292(b), as Judge Furman sensibly recognized.”

In Scott v. Chipotle, the appeals court is considering whether to address an issue that has long vexed FLSA litigators: whether the standard for final collective action certification under 29 U.S.C. § 216(b) differs from the standard for class certification under Rule 23.

The plaintiffs in Scott are apprentices – managerial trainees – at Chipotle restaurants in several states. They sued under the FLSA and state law, claiming they were misclassified as exempt managers because they spent most of their time filling orders and operating cash registers. District Judge Andrew Carter granted conditional FLSA certification, and 516 employees opted in. But after discovery, the court refused to grant final FLSA certification, and likewise denied Rule 23 class certification of the state law claims, holding that the responsibilities of the seven named plaintiffs did not match those of the putative class or collective.

The plaintiffs appealed the state law class certification decision as of right under Rule 23(f). They also sought permission from Judge Carter to take an interlocutory appeal of his FLSA final certification ruling, contending that the court’s twin rulings highlighted a “rift” between the certification standards for FLSA and non-FLSA wage and hour claims that the Second Circuit could resolve. While disagreeing with the plaintiffs’ argument, Judge Carter nonetheless observed that they had indeed “point[ed] to controlling questions of law which may have substantial grounds for a difference of opinion,” and granted permission.

It is now up to the Second Circuit whether to allow the interlocutory appeal. If it takes the case, it will have the opportunity to issue a combined opinion, addressing both Rule 23 and section 216(b), that clarifies the standards for final certification under both regimes.

Whether one’s preferences run to wasabi or jalapeno, these cases are sure to satisfy even the hungriest of wage and hour lawyers.

 

Co-authored by Abigail Cahak and Noah Finkel

Seyfarth Synopsis: The Ninth Circuit has created a circuit split by rejecting the DOL’s interpretation of FLSA regulations on use of the tip credit to pay regularly tipped employees, finding that the interpretation is both inconsistent with the regulation and attempts to create a de facto new regulation.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued an important and restaurant-friendly decision rejecting the Department of Labor’s interpretation of FLSA regulations on the use of the tip credit when paying regularly tipped employees.

In Marsh v. J. Alexander’s, the Ninth Circuit addressed a number of actions brought by servers and bartenders who alleged that their employers improperly used the tip credit and thus failed to pay them the required minimum wage. Relying on DOL interpretive guidance, the plaintiffs asserted that their non-tip generating duties took up more than 20% of their work hours, that they were employed in dual occupations, and that they were thus owed the regular minimum wage for that time. The district court dismissed the case, holding that Marsh had not alleged a dual occupation and that deference to the DOL guidance underpinning his theory of the case was unwarranted. Marsh appealed.

Under the FLSA’s regulations, an individual employed in dual occupations–one tipped and one not–cannot be paid using the tip credit for hours worked in the non-tipped occupation. The regulations clarify, however, that “[s]uch a situation is distinguishable from that of a waitress who spends part of her time cleaning and setting tables, toasting bread, making coffee[,] and occasionally washing dishes or glasses. . . . Such related duties in an occupation that is a tipped occupation need not by themselves be directed toward producing tips.” Yet, current DOL guidance imposes time and duty-based limitations not present in the regulations: the tip credit may not be used if an employee spends over 20% of hours in a workweek performing duties related to the tipped occupation but not themselves tip-generating. The guidance goes on to state that an employer also may not take the tip credit for time spent on duties not related to the tipped occupation because such an employee is “effectively employed in dual jobs.” That guidance had been followed by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals and several lower courts. It created a feeding frenzy among some plaintiffs’ lawyers, causing restaurant employers to ask servers and bartenders to track their time spent on various activities down to the minute, or risk facing a collective action lawsuit in which they have to try to rebut a servers’ claims that they had spent excessive time on activities that arguably were not tip producing.

The Ninth Circuit, however, concluded in Marsh that the DOL’s guidance was both inconsistent with the FLSA regulations and attempted to create a de facto new regulation such that it did not merit deference. In particular, the court noted the regulations’ focus on dual occupations or jobs as contrasted with the DOL guidance: “[i]nstead of providing further guidance on what constitutes a distinct job, [the DOL] takes an entirely different approach; it . . . disallows tip credits on a minute-by-minute basis based on the type and quantity of tasks performed. Because the dual jobs regulation is concerned with when an employee has two jobs, not with differentiating between tasks within a job, the [DOL’s] approach is inapposite and inconsistent with the dual jobs regulation.” Moreover, the DOL guidance “creates an alternative regulatory approach with new substantive rules . . . [and] ‘is de facto a new regulation’ masquerading as an interpretation.”

In so holding, the Ninth Circuit broke with the Eighth Circuit’s 2011 decision in Fast v. Applebee’s International, Inc. and explicitly rejected the Eighth Circuit’s analysis in that case. We previously blogged about the Fast decision here.

Marsh creates a circuit split and is particularly notable coming from the frequently employee-friendly Ninth Circuit. There remains, however, contrary authority in many parts of the country, and the decision has no bearing on state laws, some of which may nonetheless follow the DOL’s reasoning. It’s also likely that this Ninth Circuit panel does not have the last word on this issue. This opinion could receive further review by the full Ninth Circuit or by the Supreme Court, and if the Supreme Court does not resolve the circuit split, other appellate courts are likely to weigh in. Regardless, the decision points out the absurdities of the DOL’s current position and demonstrates the need for guidance on the issue from the DOL once its’ appointees are in place.

Authored by Alex Passantino

The White House announced its intent to nominate Cheryl Stanton to serve as the Administrator of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage & Hour Division. Stanton currently serves as the Executive Director for the South Carolina Department of Employment and Workforce. Prior to that, she worked in private practice as a management-side labor and employment attorney. She also previously served as Associate White House Counsel for President George W. Bush, where she was the administration’s principal liaison to the U.S. Department of Labor, the National Labor Relations Board, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Ms. Stanton is nominated to join a Labor Department in which only Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta has successfully navigated the Senate confirmation process. Deputy Secretary nominee Patrick Pizzella was formally nominated in June 2017; his nomination remains pending in the Senate. With a full Fall agenda including Hurricane Harvey (and likely Irma) relief, the debt ceiling, tax reform, border wall funding, and potential immigration-related issues, it is unclear when the Senate might confirm Ms. Stanton. It would not be surprising to see her nomination linger until the end of the year–or even into 2018.

When she does arrive at WHD, she’ll be facing a full plate of issues as the agency tackles a new rulemaking process increasing the salary level required for exemption under the FLSA’s white-collar exemptions, a proposal revising the rules surrounding tipped employees and the use of tip credit, and, presumably, filling the vacuum left by the Department’s withdrawal of the Administrator Interpretations on independent contractors and joint employment. In addition, with the Department’s announcement that it would once again be issuing opinion letters, there’s likely to be quite a queue of requests awaiting Ms. Stanton’s review.

We’ll keep you posted as Ms. Stanton’s nomination works its way through the confirmation process.

 

Co-authored by Brett Bartlett, Alex Passantino, and Kevin Young

Seyfarth Synopsis: On Thursday afternoon, a federal judge in Texas issued an order officially invalidating the U.S. Department of Labor’s 2016 overtime rule, which would have more than doubled the minimum salary level for most overtime-exempt employees. While the long awaited ruling brings a measure of closure for employers, the possibility of appeal, as well as the new administration’s efforts to revise the existing overtime exemption rules, will be critical issues for employers watch in the weeks and months to come.

For nearly a year, employers have been watching and waiting as litigation challenging the Obama administration’s revision to the FLSA’s executive, administrative, and professional (“EAP”) exemptions—a revision intended to make millions of more Americans eligible for overtime pay—wound its way through litigation in the Eastern District of Texas and the Fifth Circuit of Appeals. As of Thursday afternoon, the waiting is over: District Judge Amos Mazzant issued an order invalidating the revised rule.

The Obama DOL’s revised rule, which was finalized in the summer of 2016 and slated to take effect on December 1, 2016, would have increased the salary level required for EAP employees from $455 per week (i.e., $23,660 per year) to $913 per week (i.e., $47,476 per year). The rule also called for automatic, inflation-indexed updates to the salary level every three years. Ultimately, the revised rule did not become effective on December 1, however, because Judge Mazzant issued an order days prior that preliminarily enjoined it from going into effect.

District Judge Mazzant issued his order in two consolidated lawsuits challenging the DOL for acting beyond its rulemaking authority. The order was the result of a motion filed by a group of state attorneys general who argued that the DOL’s rulemaking was invalid, in part because it exceeded the authority Congress gave DOL to define who is a “bona fide” EAP employee who should not be entitled to overtime pay. At about the same time that the “state plaintiffs” filed their motion for preliminary injunction, which the district court granted, another set of plaintiffs—a group of business associations (“business plaintiffs”)—filed an expedited motion for summary judgment, advancing similar arguments that the DOL’s rulemaking was unlawful.

After Judge Mazzant granted the state plaintiffs’ preliminary injunction motion, the Obama DOL filed an interlocutory appeal in the Fifth Circuit attacking the injunction order. Importantly, however, this was just before the Trump Administration took office. Ultimately, briefing in the appeal was delayed as a new president settled into office and his new Labor Secretary, Alexander Acosta, took the helm at DOL. In doing so, Secretary Acosta and his Acting Solicitor were required to assess how to maneuver a proceeding involving an injunction order that on the one hand blocked the implementation of an overtime rule championed by the prior administration, but on the other hand suggested that the DOL might not have authority to set any salary level for the EAP exemptions, despite having done so for nearly eighty years.

In the meantime, the business plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment lingered before the district court.

Thursday’s ruling was preceded by a recent flurry of activity. On Wednesday, for example, Judge Mazzant issued an order confirming no further argument was necessary on the summary judgment motion. The court also collapsed the state plaintiffs’ and business plaintiffs’ cases together and joined the state plaintiffs to the business plaintiffs’ pending summary judgment motion. Nevertheless, it seemed unlikely that Judge Mazzant would rule on the summary judgment motion before hearing from the Fifth Circuit regarding his earlier preliminary injunction order. After all, an appellate ruling on whether it was proper to preliminarily enjoin the new rule certainly could have impacted or at least informed Judge Mazzant’s reasoning on whether the rule should be declared invalid, as the summary judgment motion argued it should.

Meanwhile, at the Fifth Circuit, oral argument was slated for October 3, and the parties were jockeying for an opportunity to be heard. The business plaintiffs, who were not parties to the appeal, requested permission to appear as amici at the oral argument. Soon thereafter, all parties filed a motion to stay proceedings while they attempted to negotiate a deal that would eliminate the need for further proceedings. Indeed, even on Thursday as the district court was issuing its final judgment, the parties on appeal were filing various submissions with the Fifth Circuit.

So perhaps all were surprised when District Judge Mazzant issued orders finding that the DOL’s 2016 rulemaking was invalid, and that the AFL-CIO would not be joined to the case. The district court’s ruling on both of these issues is fairly straightforward. On the motion for summary judgment, which collapsed all parties and remaining issues into its walls, the court ruled as follows:

  • As associations and similar groups, the business plaintiffs had standing to challenge the DOL’s rulemaking.
  • The FLSA does in fact apply to state governments, contrary to the state plaintiffs’ arguments.
  • Applying Chevron deference analysis, the DOL exceeded its authority by setting a salary level test that in effect eliminated the need to consider whether employees performed duties that demonstrate their roles working in a bona fide EAP capacity, based on definitions that Congress would have understood at the time it enacted the FLSA.
  • The automatic updating provided by the DOL’s final 2016 rule was unlawful for similar reasons.
  • Clarifying an area of concern for the DOL and other stakeholders, the court did not rule on the question of whether the DOL has authority to set any salary level for the EAP exemptions. The court’s ruling concerned only the 2016 rulemaking, finding the heightened salary level under the revised rule goes too far.

In denying the AFL-CIO’s motion to intervene as a necessary or permissive party, the court reasoned:

  • The union’s motion was untimely, as it had been aware of the litigation and the issues on which it bore. Yet it waited to file its motion to intervene until material events had occurred in the litigation.
  • The union failed to show that the DOL and related defendants were not adequately representing the interests that it purported to protect.
  • The union had argued among its primary points that Secretary of Labor nominee Andrew Puzder would not protect those interests; but Alexander Acosta was confirmed as Secretary of Labor, meaning that Mr. Puzder’s potential actions never became a reality.
  • And the court would nevertheless not exercise its discretion to allow the union to join the case.

The question on everyone’s mind is: where does this leave us?

One easy answer is that with respect to the EAP exemption itself, the 2004 rule remains in place. Employees making $455 per week (i.e., $23,660 per year) and whose primary duty satisfies one of the EAP duties tests may be classified as exempt.

Beyond that, there are no easy answers. The parties are no doubt considering whether the district court’s summary judgment order, which purports to withdraw all prior rulings, renders the pending appeal moot or requires its dismissal. After all, the summary judgment motion decided by the district court presents largely the same issues currently before the Fifth Circuit—namely, the validity of the new overtime rule. Some commentators have already exclaimed that the district court’s order mooted the interlocutory appeal entirely. Our view is that the question could be more complicated. Suffice it to say, there’s a lot to digest.

Either way, it also remains unclear whether either side will appeal Thursday’s rulings. While one would assume that DOL will not, we can’t slam the door on the possibility. As we saw with the appeal of the preliminary injunction, even the new Administration’s policy differences may not override DOL’s desire to defend itself against court orders limiting its authority, as the preliminary injunction did and as the court’s summary judgment order appears to do. If DOL determines that there is an institutional need to preserve its rulemaking authority, then it is possible we might see a DOL-initiated appeal, which would further complicate the question of how the union might agitate the proceedings.

As for the AFL-CIO, next steps are even foggier at this moment. Given that the DOL has already signaled the commencement of new rulemaking on the EAP exemptions, the AFL-CIO may take the view that even a complete victory on appeal—i.e., one that would permit its inclusion in the case and the reversal of the district court’s summary judgment decision—would ring hollow, as it could be undone by the DOL’s efforts to formulate a new rule that would take the place of the Obama rule.

Without question, the Eastern District of Texas’s order invalidating the 2016 overtime rule brings a large measure of closure for employers waiting to learn whether the rule would ever go into effect. The completeness and finality of that closure will depend largely on whether the AFL-CIO seeks appeal, as well as the DOL’s anticipated efforts to implement a new rule altogether. We will, of course, continue to monitor and update you on these important events.

Co-authored by Steve Shardonofsky and Kevin A. Fritz

Seyfarth Synopsis: As employers begin to pick up the pieces following Hurricane Harvey, management will likely encounter questions about employee pay, benefits, and leaves of absence during and after this disaster, and may also have questions about how to help their workers get by during this difficult time. After making sure your workers are safe, and as you start to rebuild and repair, read on for practical guidance on these pressing issues.

This past weekend Hurricane Harvey made land fall, causing unprecedented and catastrophic flooding in southeastern Texas. Our thoughts go out to our colleagues, clients, and friends affected by this natural disaster. We are thinking of you during this difficult and trying time.

Pay for Non-Exempt Employees

The General Rule

Under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), an employer is only required to pay non-exempt employees for hours actually worked. In other words, businesses are not required to pay non-exempt employees if they are not working, including times when the employer closes its doors or reduces hours of operation, whether or not forced to do so by inclement weather. Moreover, while some states require some minimum “reporting” or “show up” pay for employees who show up for work and are either turned away at the door or dismissed before the end of their scheduled shifts, Texas is not one of those states.

An important exception to this general rule exists for non-exempt employees who receive fixed salaries for fluctuating hours from week to week. Because these employees must be paid a “fixed” salary, employers must pay these workers their full weekly salary for any week in which any work was performed and may not dock their pay for days when the office is closed due to inclement weather.

Even if your business is not open during inclement weather days, you always are free to pay employees for that time, and may also permit them to use their paid leave time, if applicable.

Inclement Weather Delays and Traffic

Flooding and severe weather often cause unpredictable traffic delays, and may even result in employees becoming stranded on the road. Employees who perform work while stranded—for example, by taking phone calls or answering e-mails on their way to work—must be compensated for that time even if done away from the office. Similarly, an employee who is stranded in an employer’s vehicle on their way to work and instructed to safeguard the vehicle or other property is generally entitled to pay for time beyond their ordinary home-to-work commute (i.e., once their scheduled shift begins).

With respect to inclement weather, the general and most practical advice is to pay for any extra time spent getting to work during a scheduled shift, particularly when employees are stranded for reasons outside their control. It is likely that the Department of Labor or even a court would find that all of the time the employee was stranded within their regular shift is compensable time. Even where reasonable minds could differ on these questions, since the costs of defending these claims often exceed the underlying payroll costs, it often makes sense to pay employees for this time in the first place.

Pay for Exempt Employees

The General Rule

Exempt employees under the FLSA must be paid on a “salary basis” and earn a full day’s pay when they work any part of the day, regardless of the quality or quantity of the work performed. Thus, if a business is closed because of inclement weather and an exempt employee is ready, willing, and able to work, she must be paid for that day. On the other hand, if the exempt employee does not work for an entire workweek (for personal reasons or because the business is closed), the exempt employee need not be paid for that time—that is, the employer may “dock” her salary for the full workweek.

If the business is open and an exempt employee elects to stay home to make repairs or volunteer at a local shelter, the employer may “dock” their salary in full day increments (but perhaps consider not doing so to encourage volunteerism and aid in recovery efforts). In these instances, and including situations when exempt employees elect to arrive late or leave early for personal reasons, employers may also deduct accrued leave time in full or partial day increments as long as the employee receives his or her full pay for the week. In the event that the employee does not have any accrued time, an employer may also simply pay him or her for the day or allow the employee to take an advance on accrued paid leave and make it up at a later time. This practice is not allowed for non-exempt employees, who must be paid overtime for all hours worked over 40 in a work week. See here for more information on the FLSA salary basis rules.

Safe Harbor

Remember, improper or inadvertent deductions from pay will not typically result in the loss of exemption status if the employer reimburses the employees for the improper deductions, has a clearly communicated safe harbor policy prohibiting improper deductions, and a complaint mechanism for exempt employees to use if improper deductions are made.

Telework or Working from Home

Allowing employees to work from home during this time will aid recovery efforts and help families recover faster. Regardless of exemption status, employees who work from home during inclement weather, even if only a few hours per week, must be paid for that time. Thus, employers who will keep their businesses up and running during the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey should clearly communicate to employees who is and who is not permitted to work from home, when that work can be done, whether overtime is permitted, and how to record time worked outside of the company’s premises. It is also important to remind employees to record all hours worked, even when the work is done away from the employer’s premises. Employers should be sensitive to the fact that not all employees will be able to work remotely, and therefore should consider alternative arrangements like temporary or shared offices.

On-Call and Waiting Time

Power outages are common during natural disasters, and many employers will require their employees to wait out or work through such power failures. In most cases, any employee who is required to remain at the employer’s premises or close by and therefore unable to use that time for his own benefit (even if not working) must be compensated for that time. For example, employees who are onsite to perform emergency repairs and who are not free to leave the company’s premises must be compensated for time even if they do not ultimately perform any work. Similarly, if an employee is onsite and required to wait through a power outage, the time waiting for the power to resume is typically considered time worked and is therefore compensable.

Volunteer Time for Company Repairs

Employers should generally be cautious about having employees “volunteer” to assist during an emergency, particularly if those duties benefit the company and are regularly performed by employees. Exempt employees who volunteer to help will not be entitled to any additional compensation. But remember that too much time spent on manual tasks or other tasks unrelated to their regular job duties could invalidate their exempt status and allow them to claim overtime compensation. Conversely, non-exempt employees must be paid for all time worked, even if they offer to work and help make repairs for “free,” with one exception:  Employers may accept free work from employees of government or non-profit agencies who volunteer out of public-spiritedness to perform work that is not at all similar to their regular duties.

Leaves of Absence After a Natural Disaster

Otherwise eligible employees affected by a natural disaster may elect to take leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) for a serious health condition caused by the disaster. Additionally, employees affected by a natural disaster who must care for a child, spouse, or parent with a serious health condition may also be entitled to leave. This includes job-protected leave to care for a family member who is a current service member with a serious injury or illness. FMLA leave for this purpose is called “military caregiver leave.”

Adding to the difficulty, employers may encounter uncommon FMLA issues during and after severe storms, including absences caused by an employee’s need to care for a family member who requires refrigerated medicine or medical equipment that is not operating properly because of a power outage. What’s more, under the Americans with Disabilities Act, an employee who is physically or emotionally injured as a result of a disaster may be entitled to leave as a reasonable accommodation, so long as it would not place undue hardship on the operation of the employer’s business.

Employees who are part of an emergency services organization may also have rights under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA). Under certain conditions, USERRA provides job-protected leave for U.S. service-members. Although USERRA does require advance notice of military service, there are no strict time limits for notice after a natural disaster as long as it is reasonably “timely.” Employers should be prepared to receive and assist employees giving notice under USERRA and other laws allowing for job-protected leave.

Many counties in Texas have been declared in a state of emergency following Hurricane Harvey. While this does not provide pay or other protections for Texas employees, the Texas Workforce Commission advices that “absences due to closure of the business based on bad weather or other similar disaster or emergency condition should not count toward whatever absence limit a business has” —particularly for nonessential employees. On the other hand, if other employees are able to make it in to work (including workers from similar areas), absences for personal reasons may count toward an absence limit. On balance, however, it is always advisable to discourage the discipline of any nonessential employees who are unable to report to work during a state of emergency.

Weathering the Storm Together

While legal compliance is important, there are other practical ways employers can help workers weather the storm and get back on track. Business owners should consider relaxing the usual telecommuting rules to allow affected employees to work from home as much as possible. To minimize financial hardship, employers should continue to process payroll in a timely manner. Consider providing pay advances, loans, or even advances for paid time off/vacation time to help employees offset unanticipated expenses for repairs and insurance deductibles.

To the extent possible, employers may consider offering employees paid leave for time spent volunteering to assist with disaster relief efforts. Employers can also implement a leave donation/sharing policy to allow employees to donate paid leave to employees who will use it to volunteer in relief services or for those otherwise affected by this terrible disaster.

For more information on this topic, please contact the authors, your Seyfarth Attorney, or any member of Seyfarth Shaw’s Wage and Hour Team.