Keep Rollin’ Rollin’ Rollin’: DOL Reissues 17 Opinion Letters That Had Been Withdrawn Under the Obama Administration

In late June 2017, the United States Department of Labor (DOL) announced it would be reinstating Opinion Letters issued by its Wage and Hour Division, which was a practice that had ceased back in 2010. This announcement is significant from both the procedural and substantive basis. From 2010 to July 2017, Opinion Letters were replaced by Administrator Interpretations, which set forth a more general interpretation of the law and regulations as they pertained to a particular industry or set of employees. Opinion Letters, on the other hand, are official written opinions that set forth how wage and hour laws apply in very specific circumstances as presented to the DOL Wage and Hour Division via specific employer questions asking for a formal opinion to guide the employer as to how to proceed. In other words, employers submit questions based on their specific factual circumstances and policies and the DOL issues a written opinion as to the legality of the employer’s policies.

With Opinion Letters back, businesses have been waiting to see what the DOL would do with them. In the first week of 2018, the DOL answered that question by re-instating 17 Opinion Letters that were issued in January 2009 but withdrawn during the Obama administration. The DOL also reissued over a dozen advisory Opinion Letters that had been published during former President Bush’s administration, but were also later rescinded.

Because Opinion Letters answer specific business questions related to wage and hour issues in various business segments, the 17 reinstated Opinion Letters and the dozen plus reissued advisory Opinion Letters may provide businesses specific and tailored guidance on various wage/hour issues under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).

The reinstated letters cover a wide variety of topics including, appropriate inclusions in an employee’s regular pay rate, types of employment that qualify for the FLSA’s minimum wage and overtime exemptions, and how ambulance service workers’ “on-call” time should be treated for purposes of “hours worked” under the FLSA. Here is the full list of reinstated Opinion Letters (all dated January 5, 2018) and links:

Number

Letter Subject

FLSA2018-1

Construction supervisors employed by homebuilders and section 13(a)(1)

FLSA2018-2

Plumbing sales/service technicians and section 7(i)

FLSA2018-3

Helicopter pilots and section 13(a)(1)

FLSA2018-4

Commercial construction project superintendents and section 13(a)(1)

FLSA2018-5

Regular rate calculation for fire fighters and alarm operators

FLSA2018-6

Coaches and the teacher exemption under section 13(a)(1)

FLSA2018-7

Salary deductions for full-day absences based on hours missed and section 13(a)(1) salary basis

FLSA2018-8

Client service managers and section 13(a)(1)

FLSA2018-9

Year-end non-discretionary bonus and section 7(e)

FLSA2018-10

Residential construction project supervisor and section 13(a)(1)

FLSA2018-11

Job bonuses and section 7(e)

FLSA2018-12

Consultants, clinical coordinators, coordinators, and business development managers under section 13(a)(1)

FLSA2018-13

Fraud/theft analysts and agents under section 13(a)(1)

FLSA2018-14

Calculation of salary deductions and section 13(a)(1) salary basis

FLSA2018-15

Product demonstration coordinators and section 13(a)(1)

FLSA2018-16

Volunteer fire company contracting for paid EMTs – joint employment and volunteer status

FLSA2018-17

Construction supervisors employed by homebuilders and section 13(a)(1)

As demonstrated by the list above, there are a number of broad topics covered, i.e., Section 13(a)(1) of the FLSA, which exempts employees employed in a bona fide administrative function, and a number of extremely narrow ones, e.g., those dealing with helicopter pilots, coaches, construction supervisors employed by homebuilders.

Here is a summary of some of the noteworthy findings in the reinstated Opinion Letters:

Bonus Compensation

The DOL reviewed the issue of whether certain bonuses (or other payments) should be included in an employee’s regular rate of pay under the FLSA. See FLSA2018-5, FLSA2018-9, and FLSA2018-11.

Exempt Employee Deductions

The DOL reviewed the issue of whether a salary deduction is permissible when an exempt employee is absent for a full day, but does not have enough leave time in the employee’s leave bank to cover the entire absence. The DOL concluded that, “if the absence is one full day in duration, the employer may deduct one full day’s pay or less. Therefore, in answer to your first question, if an employee is absent for one or more full days, but does not have enough time in his or her leave bank to cover the entire absence, the employer may make a deduction from the employee’s pay for any portion of the full-day absences that is not accounted for by the leave bank.” SeeFLSA2018-7.

Administrative Exemption

In reviewing whether client service managers at an insurance company qualified as exempt administrative employees, the DOL focused on the “independent judgment” factor in determining that their primary duty was to use independent judgment over matters of business significance when issuing advice and, generally, without first seeking upper-level management approval.

On-Call Hours

The DOL concluded that on-call hours of ambulance service personnel are not compensable time under the FLSA for purposes of the regular rate and overtime calculations. The issue arose from an ambulance service’s unwritten policy that required on-call employees to arrive for service at the ambulance garage within five minutes of being notified. The DOL determined the five-minute requirement was “not a significant hindrance” to the employees that would require the employer to convert their on-call time to compensable hours worked. Notably, the scope was an ambulance company servicing a small city of approximately 4,000 individuals.

Takeaways:

  1. Nothing New as the DOL Returns to the Prior Opinion Letter Process. The important news is the return to the more focused, less-sweeping means to establishing DOL-interpretation policy. Otherwise the information provided in the reinstated Opinion Letters is not new; it has been available to businesses for years and, as such, most businesses with issues relevant to the topics in the reinstated Opinion Letters are likely already complying. The reinstated Opinion Letters do not take on any topics that had been severely altered during the Obama administration. We addressed this rolling-back issue in our All Things HR in a post titled “The Way We Were: The NLRB’s Time Machine Resets the Clock on Employer Work Rules and Joint Employer Status” demonstrating this is not just a NLRB mantra, it looks to be the DOL’s too.

  2. Ranging Applicability. As the ambulance-employer DOL Opinion Letter demonstrates, some of the reinstated Opinion Letters will have very limited applicability as Opinion Letters are only as good as the overlapping facts in the circumstances presented in them and the business seeking to use them as guidance. Nevertheless, while many Opinion Letters focus on specific legal issues specific to certain employers/businesses/industries, they are still valuable resources and may provide answers or guidance in many areas in wage and hour law.

  3. More Defenses Available to Businesses. Opinion Letters were and continue to be another tool businesses have in their arsenal to help ensure compliance with the FLSA, and another tool in their defense arsenal. Specifically, Section 10 of the Portal-to-Portal provides businesses an affirmative defense to all monetary liability if the business can demonstrate it acted “in good faith and in conformity with and in reliance on any written administrative regulation, order, ruling, approval, or interpretation” of the DOL Wage and Hour Division. See 29 U.S.C. § 259 and 29 C.F.R. Part 790.

In addition, Opinion Letters can be used to prove the “good faith” defense against the double liquidated damages penalty available under the FLSA, and the third-year of damages in the case of willful violations, of which the bar is extremely low. See 29 U.S.C. § 260. The availability of newly-issued Opinion Letters means that a business can request and obtain an Opinion Letter addressing a specific practice, policy, and/or factual circumstance for guidance and rely on a favorable Opinion Letter in response to a charge or lawsuit on the same issue.

  1. This is a Good Thing. This is good news for businesses because it demonstrates two things: (1) businesses will be able to have and rely on additional resources to meet their statutory and regulatory wage and hour obligations; and (2) the Trump administration seems intent on turning back the clock to a time pre-Obama administration, but not necessarily instituting new guidance or interpretations (not in the labor and employment context at least). This means that businesses are likely already familiar with what they should be doing and have been doing it.

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For more Labor and Employment news go to the National Law Review’s Labor and Employment Page.

Breaking Federal Developments in Labor and Employment September 2017

Salary Test for Exempt Status Invalidated

Under the prior administration the DOL had issued amendments to certain exemptions from the overtime requirements of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), which would have dramatically increased the number of employees eligible for overtime pay to over 4 million workers within the first year of implementation. The amendments were to be effective on December 1, 2016, however their implementation was stayed by a federal judge last November, as reported in our November 2016 Client Alert.

The new regulations were to essentially double the salary threshold for employees who would be exempt from overtime payments, assuming they met one of the three exemptions, from $455 per week or $23,660 per year, to $913 per week or $47,476 per year. Under these regulations, even if employees performed duties that would otherwise indicate they were exempt from overtime, if they made less than $47,476 per year, their employers would have to pay them overtime regardless of their duties. Just last week, a federal judge in Texas invalidated the new regulations, and specifically found that, while a salary test was permissible, the minimum threshold of over 47K per year was too high, and in fact obviated the need for any other duties based analysis, which has always been at the heart of the executive, administrative, or professional exemptions.

Employer Tip

For the time being, employers can feel comfortable relying on the duties test to determine eligibility for overtime, however, the DOL has indicated that it is still looking at the minimum salary threshold, and employers should expect that threshold to increase from the current number of $23,660. Employers would be well advised to take a look at their currently classified exempt employees making between 24-35K per year to determine whether such employees truly meet the duties test, and whether such employees are being paid at appropriate levels.

EEO-1 Salary Reporting Requirements Blocked

The new EEO-1 forms with reporting information for 2017 were to have included salary information in addition to the usual reporting requirements. The EEOC was presumably intending to use such information to target companies for Equal Pay investigations and complaints. Reporting is still due using the EEO-1 forms in March 2018, but the OMB has just announced that the forms are not going to require the reporting of salary information by gender and other protected characteristics, so employers have a reprieve with respect to federal reporting requirements.

Employer Tip

Employers should be mindful that the state and federal equal pay laws are still applicable, and it is always a good idea to do a self-audit of comparative pay data based on gender, race, and other protected characteristics in order to ensure compliance with such laws. Please also refer back to our April 2017 Client Alert with respect to NY pay equity laws and the salary history ban that goes into effect next month for NY employers.

New I-9 Form in Effect September 18, 2017

Employers should be aware that a new I-9 form is going into effect on September 18th. The link to the new form can be found here.

This post was written by David I. Rosen of Sills Cummis & Gross P.C. © Copyright 2017

Sign of Future Changes? DOL Proposes 18-Month Extension of Transition Period for Compliance With ERISA “Fiduciary Investment Advice” Rule

On August 9, the US Department of Labor (DOL) announced in a court filing that it has proposed an 18-month extension of the full implementation of the Best Interest Contract Exemption (the “BIC Exemption”) under the ERISA fiduciary investment advice rule. The Proposed Extension would also apply to the Principal Transaction Exemption and Prohibited Transaction Exemption 84-24 (together with the BIC Exemption, the “Exemptions”). In April of this year, the DOL extended the effective date of the Rule until June 9 and limited the requirements of the Exemptions to only require compliance with the “impartial conduct standards” (ICS) through December 31 (the “Transition Period”). If the Proposed Extension is approved, full compliance with the Exemptions will not be required until July 1, 2019.

As described in our earlier advisory, “Compliance With the ERISA Fiduciary Advice Rule for Private Investment Fund Managers and Sponsors and Managed Account Advisers: Beginning June 9, 2017,” compliance with the ICS generally requires that an investment advice fiduciary (1) act in the “best interest” of plan participants and IRA owners; (2) receive no more than “reasonable compensation” (as defined under ERISA and the Internal Revenue Code); and (3) make no materially misleading statements about recommended transactions, fees, compensation and conflicts of interest.

The Proposed Extension was submitted to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) in the form of an amendment to each of the Exemptions.

This post was written by Henry Bregstein Wendy E. Cohen David Y. Dickstein Jack P. Governale Christian B. Hennion and Gary W. Howell of Katten Muchin Rosenman LLP
For more legal analysis visit the National Law Review.

DOL Proposes New LCA, H-1B Complaint Form

Following through on its April 3, 2017announcement that it was considering changes to the Labor Condition Application (LCA), the Department of Labor (DOL) published a notice in the Federal Register on August 3, 2017, of its proposed revisions to the ETA 9035 or LCA. A certified LCA must be included with every H-1B petition filed with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.  DOL’s Employment and Training Administration posted the proposed LCA on its website saying the changes would “better protect American workers, confront fraud, and increase transparency.” DOL said it would accept comments until Oct. 2, 2017.

The revisions in the form reflect the focus of the Trump Administration on increased enforcement of third-party placement and on H-1B dependent employers. The new LCA asks whether the sponsored worker will be “placed with a secondary employer” and, if yes, asks for the legal name of the secondary employer. The new LCA also requires H-1B dependent employers to complete an additional list of questions set out in an appendix if the sponsored worker is exempt from H-1B dependency obligations. In addition, the attestation language in the form is more expansive. For example, the wage attestation in the new LCA specifies that employers may not deduct attorneys’ fees or costs in connection with a visa petition.

At the same time it released its new LCA form, the DOL also posted its revised WH-4, Nonimmigrant Worker Information Form, which is the form individuals may use to submit complaints to DOL about fraud or misconduct in H-1B, H-1B1 or E-3 visa programs. This form is utilized by DOL’s Wage and Hour Division, which is the office that conducts LCA audits.

This post was written byRebecca B. Schechter of  Greenberg Traurig, LLP.
More information on Department of Labor at the National Law Review.

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.

The U.S. Department of Labor Rolls Back Obama-Era Guidance on Joint Employers and Independent Contractors

The U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”) announced today that it was rolling back an Obama-era policy that attempted to increase regulatory oversight of joint employer and contractor businesses.

Courts and agencies use the joint employer doctrine to determine whether a business effectively controls the workplace policies of another company, such as a subsidiary or sub-contractor. That control could be over things like wages, the hiring process, or scheduling.

Legal IT ConsultantIn a short statement, the DOL signaled that it was returning to a “direct control” standard. “U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta today announced the withdrawal of the U.S. Department of Labor’s 2015 and 2016 informal guidance on joint employment and independent contractors. Removal of the administrator interpretations does not change the legal responsibilities of employers under the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act, as reflected in the department’s long-standing regulations and case law.”

Until 2015, the DOL interpreted the joint employer doctrine to apply only to cases in which a business had “direct control” over another business’s workplace. In 2015 and then again in 2016, under then-Labor Secretary Tom Perez (currently the Democratic National Committee Chair), the DOL changed its interpretation to state that a business may be a joint employer even if it exerted “indirect control” over another’s workplace. The 2015 and 2016 guidance effectively expanded the conditions for when one business can be held liable for employment and civil rights law violations at another company. Critics of this “indirect control” language argued that it was ambiguous and threatened to throw franchise, parent-subsidiary, and independent contractor relationships between businesses into disarray. Companies, particularly franchises, were particularly concerned that they could face liability at workplaces they did not directly oversee or control.

However, the DOL’s announcement today rescinded its guidance on “indirect control” and also rescinded guidance on independent contractors, which essentially stated that the DOL considered most workers to be employees under the Fair Labor Standards Act and that it was likely to apply a broad definition of “employee” and “employer” when investigating a company’s practices. This decision is a big win for businesses and business groups.

Despite the DOL’s reversal, the Obama-era standard can still be applied to businesses through the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”), an independent agency that serves as the government’s main labor law enforcer. The NLRB considers a company jointly liable for its contractors’ compliance with the National Labor Relations Act if they have “indirect” control over the terms and conditions of employment or have “reserved authority to do so.” The NLRB has not rescinded its interpretation. President Trump has yet to pick nominees for the five-member board’s two open seats, which will likely affect the NLRB’s interpretation of the joint employer doctrine and many other NLRB rules, interpretations, and guidance.

The DOL’s guidance does not affect actions taken by other federal agencies.

This post was written by James R. Hays and Jason P. Brown  Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton LLP.

The ERISA Fiduciary Advice Rule: What Happens on June 9?

This is an update on the upcoming effective date of the “fiduciary rule” or “fiduciary advice rule” (the “Rule”) that was issued under the US Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA). The Rule was published by the US Department of Labor (DOL) in April, 2016. The purpose of the Rule is to cause a person or entity to become a “fiduciary” under ERISA and the US Internal Revenue Code of 1986 (the “Code”) as a result of giving of certain types of advice involving investment of assets of employee benefit plans, such as 401(k) or pension plans, or of individual retirement accounts (IRAs) and receiving compensation for that advice.

calendar hundred daysThe Rule was originally intended to become effective April 10, but in April the DOL extended (the “Extension Notice”) the effective date of the Rule for 60 days (until June 9), and provided for reduced compliance obligations under the Rule from that date through the end of 2017 (the “Transition Period”). The effective date for Prohibited Transaction Exemptions (PTEs), both new and amended, that are related to the Rule also was extended until June 9, and further transitional relief was provided with respect to certain of those PTEs.

In a May 23 Op Ed in the Wall Street Journal, Labor Secretary Acosta announced that the Rule would go into effect on June 9, as provided for in the Extension Notice, and that the DOL would seek additional public comment on possible revisions to the Rule.  He indicated that the DOL “found no principled legal basis to change the June 9 date while we seek public input.”  The DOL also published, on May 23, FAQs on implementation of the Rule and an update of its previously-issued enforcement policy for the Transition Period. Therefore, it is important to review the rules that will go into effect on June 9.

Under the Rule, fiduciary status is triggered by investment “recommendations.” It provides, in general, that if a person (1) provides certain types of recommendations to a plan or its participants and/or beneficiaries, or to an IRA owner (collectively, “Protected Investors”); and (2) as a result, receives a fee or other compensation (direct or indirect), then that person is providing “investment advice for a fee” and therefore, in giving such advice, is a fiduciary to the Protected Investor. Receipt of compensation tied to such recommendations by a person or entity that is a fiduciary could result in prohibited transactions under ERISA and the Code. Under the Extension Notice, the DOL provided simplified compliance requirements under the Rule for the Transition Period.

This post was written by Gary W. HowellAustin S. LillingGabriel S. MarinaroRichard D. MarshallAndrew R. SkowronskiRobert A. Stone of Katten Muchin Rosenman LLP.