Department of Labor Signals Move to Limit Definition of “Employment”

On June 7, 2017, U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta announced the immediate withdrawal of the U.S. Department of Labor’s (DOL’s) 2015 and 2016 Administrative Interpretations regarding joint employment and independent contractors. While this withdrawal signals the current administration’s attempt to limit the expansive definition of “employment,” the DOL made clear that it does not relieve companies of their legal obligations under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act.

Many businesses had argued these obligations were unduly burdensome on employers. For the past several years, the Wage and Hour Division (WHD) has worked with the IRS and numerous states to combat employee misclassification and to ensure that workers receive all the wages, benefits and protections to which they are entitled. In Fiscal Year 2015, for example, WHD investigations resulted in some $74 million in back wages for more than 102,000 workers, many of which were concentrated in traditionally low-wage industries such as janitorial, temporary help, food service, day care and hospitality. Withdrawal of the Administrative Interpretations may be the first step to rein in these enforcement efforts.

Specifically, the DOL has withdrawn guidance regarding:

  • The Presumption That Most Workers Are Employees: The withdrawn guidance on independent contractors stated that “most workers are employees” under the FLSA. United States Supreme Court precedent makes clear that there is no single rule or test for determining whether an individual is an employee or an independent contractor for purposes of the FLSA. Thus, even now, the inquiry into independent contractor status remains complex and fact-intensive.

  • The Expansion of the “Joint Employer” Definition: The withdrawn guidance on joint employment distinguished between “horizontal” joint employment and “vertical” joint employment scenarios. Under this guidance, the joint employment inquiry focused on the “economic realities” of the relationship between the employee and the potential joint employer. Its withdrawal signals a shift back to applying joint employer status only when a business has direct control over another business’s workplace.

More is expected from the Trump Administration and the courts on the ever-changing law surrounding independent contractors and joint employment.

This post was written by Angela M. Duerden and Elisabeth (Lisa) Shu of Wilson Elser Moskowitz Edelman & Dicker LLP.

What Does Subway’s “Voluntary Agreement” with the US Department of Labor Mean for Joint Employer Status?

Subway, DOL, Joint EmployerThis past week, Doctor’s Associates Inc.,  which is the owner and franchisor for the Subway sandwich restaurant chain entered into aVoluntary Agreement (the “Agreement”) with the US Department of Labor’s (DOL) Wage and Hour Division “as part of [Subway’s] broader efforts to make its franchised restaurants and overall business operationssocially responsible,” and as part of Subway’s “effort to promote and achieve compliance with labor standards to protect and enhance the welfare” of Subway’s own workforce and that of its franchisees.

While the Agreement appears intended to help reduce the number of wage and hour law claims arising at both Subway’s company owned stores and those operated by its franchisee across the country, the Agreement appears to add further support to efforts by unions, plaintiffs’ lawyers and other federal and state agencies such as the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB or Board), DOL’s own Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the EEOC to treat franchisors as joint employers with their franchisees.

What Is in the Agreement?

While on its face this may sound like a good idea and one that should not be controversial, in reality by entering into this Agreement, which among other things commits Subway to working with both the DOL and Subway’s franchisees, to develop and disseminate wage and hour compliance assistance materials and to work directly with the DOL to “explore ways to use technology to support franchisee compliance, such as building alerts into a payroll and scheduling platform that SUBWAY offers as a service to its franchisees,” and although the Agreement is notable for its silence on the question of whether the DOL considers Subway to be a joint employer with its franchisees, the Agreement is likely to be cited, by unions, plaintiffs’ lawyers and other government agencies such as the NLRB as evidence of the fact that Subway as franchisor possesses the ability, whether exercised or not, to directly or indirectly affect the terms and conditions of employment of its franchisees’ employees, and as such should be found to be a joint employer with them.

Notably, while the Agreement does not specifically address the exercise of any such authority on a day to day basis, it does suggest an ongoing monitoring, investigation and compliance role in franchisee operations and employment practices by Subway and a commitment by Subway as franchisor to take action and provide data to the DOL concerning Fair Labor Standards Act compliance.  In the past, courts have in reliance on similar factors held that a franchisor could be liable with its franchisees for overtime, minimum wage and similar wage and hour violations.

Of particular interest to many will be the final section of the Agreement, titled “Emphasizing consequences for FLSA noncompliance.”  This section not only notes that “SUBWAY requires franchisees to comply with all applicable laws, including the FLSA, as part of its franchise agreement,” but also what action it may take where it finds a franchisee has a “history of FLSA violations”:

SUBWAY may exercise its business judgment to terminate an existing franchise, deny a franchisee the opportunity to purchase additional franchises, or otherwise discipline a franchisee based on a franchisee’s history of FLSA violations.

Will Subway’s “Voluntary Agreement” with the DOL Have Any Impact Beyond Wage and Hour Matters?

As we approach the one year anniversary of the NLRB’s decision in Browning Ferris Industries, it is abundantly clear that not only the Board itself but unions and others seeking to represent and act on behalf of employees are continuing to push the boundaries and expand the application of Browning Ferris.  In fact the Board has been asked to find that policies and standards such as those evidencing a business’s commitment to “socially responsible” employment practices, the very phrase used in the Subway-DOL Agreement, should be evidence of indirect control sufficient to support a finding of a joint employer relationship between a business and its suppliers.

Moreover, the NLRB and unions such as UNITE HERE and the Service Employees International Union continue to aggressively pursue their argument that the terms of a franchise agreement and a franchisor’s efforts to ensure that its franchisees, who conduct business under its brand, can also be sufficient to support a finding of joint employer status.  No doubt they will also point to the Subway Agreement with the DOL as also being evidence of such direct or indirect control affecting franchisees’ employees’ terms and conditions.

What Should Employers Do Now?

Employers are well advised to review the full range of their operations and personnel decisions, including their use of contingent and temporaries and personnel supplied by temporary and other staffing agencies to assess their vulnerability to such action and to determine what steps they make take to better position themselves for the challenges that are surely coming.

Equally critical employers should carefully evaluate their relationships with suppliers, licensees, and others they do business with to ensure that their relationships, and the agreements, both written and verbal, governing those relationships do not create additional and avoidable risks.

©2016 Epstein Becker & Green, P.C. All rights reserved.

DOL Announces Final Rule on Salary Threshold for Exempt White-Collar Employees

Today, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) announced its final rule on the minimum salary that white-collar employees must be paid to qualify as exempt from the overtime requirements under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The new rule raises the current salary level that such employees must receive in order to qualify as “exempt” from $23,660 annually, to $47,476 annually. The new rule takes effect December 1, 2016.

Under current DOL regulations, most white collar employees – executives (supervisors), administrative employees, and professionals – are exempt from the FLSA overtime rules and need not be paid overtime for hours worked over 40 in a workweek if they satisfy two conditions. First, they must perform “exempt” duties as defined by the DOL regulations. Second, they must be paid a guaranteed salary of at least $455 per week, or about $23,660 annually.

The new rule, first proposed in a slightly different form back in 2015, raises the salary level significantly to $913 per week, or about $47,476 annually. This new salary level is set at the 40th percentile of weekly earnings for full-time salaried workers in the lowest income Census region (currently the South). This number is less than the $970 per week, or about $50,440 annually, that the DOL had originally proposed. In addition, the DOL will now permit up to 10 percent of the salary level to come from non-discretionary bonuses and incentive payments (including commissions).

This new threshold of $913 per week/$47,476 annually will be tied to the 40th percentile for full-time salaried workers in the lowest income Census region going forward, and will be updated every three years. It is currently expected to rise to more than $51,000 annually when the first update takes effect on January 1, 2020.

In addition, under the new rule the salary level for employees who qualify for the “highly compensated employee” exemption will rise from $100,000 per year to $134,004 per year. This level is the annual equivalent of the 90th percentile of full-time salaried workers nationally.

One change contemplated by the DOL when the agency first proposed this new rule back in 2015 will not take effect: changes to the “duties” test. The DOL has announced that the final rule will leave the existing duties tests for the executive, administrative, and professional exemptions in place.

The DOL estimates that 4.2 million additional workers will become eligible for overtime as a result of this rule change, including approximately 101,000 workers in the State of Michigan. This is estimated to raise total wages for American workers by approximately $12 billion over the next 10 years.

Many employers will be impacted by this new rule, as many employers have at least one “exempt” employee who is paid less than $47,476 annually. Thus, employers should scrutinize their workforces carefully to determine if changes in exempt status are necessary. Options include:

  • increase the salary of an employee who meets the duties test to at least $47,476 annually to retain his or her exempt status;

  • convert the employee to non-exempt status and pay an overtime premium of one-and-one-half times the employee’s regular rate of pay for any overtime hours worked;

  • convert the employee to non-exempt status and reduce or eliminate overtime hours;

  • convert the employee to non-exempt status and reduce the amount of pay allocated to base salary (provided that the employee still earns at least the applicable hourly minimum wage) and add pay to account for overtime for hours worked over 40 in the workweek, to hold total weekly pay constant; or

  • use some combination of these responses.

Given the significance of these changes, and the expected impact on the American workforce, employers are encouraged to consult with legal counsel to discuss their options and strategies for implementing changes, if necessary.

U.S. Department of Labor Issues Final Rule Greatly Expanding Scope of Reportable “Persuader” Activities

DOLOn March 23, 2016, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) issued a final rule, first proposed in June 2011, requiring employers and their labor relations consultants, including law firms, to report to DOL any agreements pursuant to which the consultant undertakes activities with “an object directly or indirectly to persuade employees concerning their rights to organize and bargain collectively.” Reports are to be filed electronically and are subject to immediate public access. Failure to report is subject to criminal sanctions.

The new rule reverses a decades-old DOL interpretation of the “advice” exception to reporting requirements. Previously, if the agreement between the employer and consultant involved nothing more than the consultant providing the employer with materials or advice that the employer had the right to accept or reject, so long as the consultant had no direct contact with employees, no report was required.

The new rule requires an employer to report on Form LM-10 and consultants to report on Form LM-20 information relating to the scope of the agreement and fees paid for the provision of both direct and indirect persuader materials or activities.

The new rule narrows the “advice” exception to oral or written recommendations from the consultant regarding a decision or course of conduct by the employer including, for example, counseling a business about its plans to undertake a particular course of action, legal vulnerabilities and how they may be minimized, identification of unsettled areas of the law and representation of the employer in disputes or negotiations that may arise.

The greatly expanded definition of reportable persuader activities, provided the object is to directly or indirectly persuade employees concerning their rights to organize and bargain collectively, includes, among many other activities:

  • Planning, directing or coordinating activities undertaken by supervisors or other employer representatives with employees.

  • Providing persuader materials or communications to the employer in oral, electronic or written form for dissemination or distribution to employees, including drafting and revising of such materials. (The sale, rental or other use of “off the shelf” persuader materials not created for the particular employer is excluded, unless the consultant assists the employer in selecting materials).

  • Conducting a seminar for supervisors or other employer representatives if the seminar includes development of anti-union tactics and strategies.

  • Developing or implementing personnel policies or actions which have a direct or indirect object of persuading employees concerning their rights to organize and bargain collectively.

The rule is applicable to agreements and payments made on or after July 1, 2016. Legal challenges and an attempt to block enforcement of the new persuader rules are a certainty—the outcome is not.

© MICHAEL BEST & FRIEDRICH LLP

DOL’s Upcoming Proposed Revisions to the FLSA’s White Collar Exemption Regulations

This month the Department of Labor is expected to propose, for the first time since 2004, revised regulations concerning the executive, administrative, professional, outside sales, and computer exemptions under the Fair Labor Standards Act. These revisions were prompted by President Obama’s March 13, 2014 memorandum to the Secretary of Labor, which stated that the exemptions “have not kept up with our modern economy” and which “direct[ed] [the DOL] to propose revisions to modernize and streamline the existing overtime regulations.” After the memorandum was issued, the agency began writing proposed regulations and announced on May 5, 2015, that it had completed drafting them and had submitted them (as required by Executive Order 12866) to the Office of Management and Budget for review.

Procedurally, the “proposed rules” will be published in the Federal Register (an action known as a “Notice of Public Rulemaking” or “NPRM”) for public comment following the OMB’s review, and the DOL has stated that it expects to take this step this month. After the public comment period closes, the DOL will consider the public comments in drafting “final rules;” submit them for a final review by the OMB; and then publish them in the Federal Register with an effective date on which they become law. Although implementation of the final rules may not occur until well into 2016, traditionally the final rules do not differ substantially from the proposed rules. Accordingly, employers should get a sense this month of what the future regulatory landscape will look like.

So what can we expect from these revisions? As an initial matter, it’s almost certain that the DOL will raise the $455 minimum salary requirement, which hasn’t changed since 2004. With regard to the other revisions, however, the DOL’s drafting process has been opaque, and official pronouncements have been largely limited to the Presidential Memorandum and the DOL’s description of the regulatory action on its Spring 2015 agenda, neither of which provide any specific detail. Nonetheless, unofficial pronouncements (including the Secretary of Labor’s remarks before the International Association of Firefighters on March 18, 2014) have repeatedly stressed the DOL’s position that the current regulations result in too many employees falling under the exemptions, particularly retail managers who spend a large portion of their time performing non-exempt duties. Accordingly, there is speculation that the DOL may eliminate the “concurrent duties” provision of 29 CFR 541.106, which provides that simultaneously performing both exempt and nonexempt duties will not automatically disqualify an otherwise exempt employee from the executive exemption. There is also speculation that the regulations may impose a set percentage cap on the amount of time an exempt employee may spend on non-exempt duties, similar to exemption provisions under some state laws (such as California and Connecticut) and to some provisions of the pre-2004 FLSA regulations.

In any event, one thing is certain – some employees who are properly classified as exempt under the current regulations will no longer be exempt under the new rules. Employers will shortly have a preview of just how drastic these changes will be, and should begin evaluating their compliance with the regulations well in advance of the implementation of the final rules.

©2015 Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP. All Rights Reserved

Supreme Court: DOL Can Flip-flop on its Interpretation of Its Own Regulations

Godfrey & Kahn S.C. Law firm

In 2010, the United States Department of Labor (DOL) issued an “Administrator’s Interpretation” stating that DOL would no longer consider employees who perform duties typical of mortgage loan officers to be exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act’s overtime pay requirements.  This particular ruling revolved around the FLSA’s exemption for administrative employees.

Supreme court DOL FLSA

The DOL’s 2010 stance represented a change of course, as DOL had previously issued an “Opinion Letter” in 2006 stating that mortgage loan officers were generally exempt from the FLSA’s overtime pay requirements under the administrative exemption.  Litigation ensued following the 2010 Administrator’s Interpretation.  The focus of that litigation was a rather technical issue:  Should DOL have followed the formal rulemaking process before it could flip-flop on its interpretation of its own regulations?  You can read more about the details of the litigation here.

On Monday, March 9, 2015, the United States Supreme Court ruled that DOL was not required to follow the formal rulemaking process whenever it took a position that was contrary to previous guidance issued by DOL.

Why does this ruling matter to employers of mortgage loan officers?  Those businesses should classify those employees as non-exempt and evaluate their compensation structures immediately to comply with DOL’s interpretation of the administrative exemption.  Otherwise, these employers run the risk of DOL enforcement actions and private litigation.  Of course, these employers can disregard the DOL’s interpretation and rely on individual merits of their classifications, but they would do so at their peril.

Why does this ruling matter to employers generally?  Based on the Court’s ruling, DOL can arguably change its tune about any interpretation of its own interpretive regulations without any warning to employers.  An emboldened DOL could revisit regulatory interpretations that currently favor employers and flip those interpretations on their head, without warning.  More importantly, the Court’s ruling was not limited to the DOL, which means that other federal administrative agencies (e.g., OSHA) could follow suit, leaving employers with little recourse to challenge such changes of heart.

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Vacation Policy Pitfalls for Illinois Employers

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The Illinois Wage Payment and Collection Act, 820 ILCS 115/1, et seq., governs the payment of wages—including vacation pay—in Illinois.  While most employers understand that they must pay their workers on a regular basis for the wages the employees have earned, many do not consider how vacation policies may create a heightened risk of a wage class action lawsuit.

Simply put, employers must pay the wages earned by an employee at least semi-monthly, or no more than 13 days after they are first earned.  Departing employees must be paid all earned wages by the next regular pay period.  The Act defines wages to include vacation pay.  This is where things can get tricky.  An employer is not obliged to provide any vacation time to its employees.  However, once it chooses to provide vacation, the vacation time becomes earned wages that must be paid under the Act to the employee, even if the employee terminates their employment.

Employees receive vacation time in one of two ways.  First, an employer can award vacation time without requiring employees to first work some period of time.  Such a policy is called an “inducement for future service” policy and immediately vests.  Hence, employees may take vacation time under an “inducement for future service” policy without meeting any length of service criteria (and with no obligation to repay the vacation time should the employment end).  Such “inducement for future service” policies are unusual.

The other alternative is where the vacation is earned based on service.  For example, the employer can award two weeks of vacation for each year of employment.  This is considered a “length-of-service” policy and the law requires that employees earn “length-of-service” vacation time on a pro rata basis, even where the employer’s policy says they do not.  In other words, the vacation time vests as the employee works.  Thus, an employee who would earn two weeks of vacation after completing a year of employment is entitled to be paid for one week of vacation wages if he/she leaves the employer six months into the year, regardless of what the employer’s policy says.  Most employers have “length-of-service” policies.

An employer with a “length-of-service” policy must pay a departing employee the vacation wages they earned on a pro rata basis.  This is where a vacation policy can become dangerous.  If the employer has a policy that an employee only gets their vacation if they are employed in the following year, the employer is at risk with regard to every employee who left or, in the future leaves, its employment without getting paid vacation pay on a pro rata basis.  Such policy flaws lend themselves to class action lawsuits because the employer’s liability to the class will usually turn on a single question, such as whether the vacation policy is legal or not.

A class action lawsuit can be filed by one departing employee on behalf of all employees who left the employment without getting vacation pay.  A class action lawsuit is dangerous because it aggregates all employees’ claims into a single lawsuit brought by just the class representative.  In 2010, the Illinois legislature amended the statute of limitations under the Act to allow a class representative to file on behalf of a class that goes back in time up to ten years.  Because of the large number of unnamed, but represented, employees that can be in a class, the situation can create potentially disastrous financial exposure for an employer.  And, if the representative employee prevails, she is entitled to recover from the employer her attorneys’ fees, which are usually substantial.  As if this were not enough, the 2010 amendment also permits employees to collect damages of two percent per month—of 24 percent per annum—on any unpaid wages.  Willful refusals to pay wages can also be criminal.

Even if the class action lawsuit settles for a set amount of money, the employer usually must also pay the class representative’s attorneys’ fees.  Under the 2010 amendment, a prevailing employee is entitled to recover her attorneys’ fees, even she did not file her case as a class action.

Recognizing the risk, some employers have tried to limit their exposure by requiring that employees sign an agreement that they will make any claims within a short period of time—for example, six months.  Importantly, the plaintiffs’ bar and the Illinois Department of Labor take the position that the Act prevents an employee from agreeing to limit any of the rights bestowed on the employee by the Act.  Thus, an employee’s written agreement that they will bring any claims for unpaid wages within six months is unenforceable as a matter of public policy.

Employers should be careful to ensure that their policies comply with each state law in which they have employees, including the 2010 amendments to the Act.  If an employer is unfortunately named in a class action lawsuit, they should promptly seek legal advice from a law firm with experience in defending against class action lawsuits.

Copyright 2014 Schopf & Weiss LLP
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