Will the DOL Exemption Rules Be Enjoined Before December 1, 2016?

The Department of Labor’s May 16, 2016 Final Rule Defining and Delimiting the Exemptions for Executive, Administrative, Professional, Outside Sales and Computer Employees require that, by  December 1, 2016, employees must be paid a weekly salary of at least $913 (annually, $47,476) to maintain “white collar” exemption from overtime and other federal Fair Labor Standards Act requirements, as long as the employees’ duties satisfy the exemption rules too.  We wrote about this previously.

Last month, twenty-one states, led by Nevada and Texas, filed an emergency motion to enjoin implementation of the Final Rule in a federal court action commenced the month before.  State of Nevada, et al. v. DOL (USDC, Eastern District of Texas, case No., 4:16-cv-00731-ALM).  At its core, the action challenges DOL authority to increase the salary threshold and set automatic increases, and whether the Final Rule infringes on state government employer’s sovereignty.  This blog post does not analyze the merits of this action, but instead updates our clients and friends on its status given that we are now just a few weeks away from December 1.

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Seventh Circuit: Tipped Employees Can Perform Limited Non-Tipped Work At The Tip Credit Rate Of Pay

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit issued a significant decision last week addressing the compensation of tipped employees who perform non-tipped work.  In Schaefer v. Walker Bros. Enterprises, 2016 WL 3874171 (7th Cir. July 15, 2016), a restaurant server in Illinois pursued a class and collective action alleging, among other things, that his employer violated state and federal wage and hour laws by failing to pay servers minimum wage for the time they spent on non-tipped duties.  The Seventh Circuit affirmed summary judgment dismissal of the lawsuit.  The Court held that an employer may compensate a tipped employee at the reduced “tip credit rate” of pay for:  (1) limited non-tipped work incidental or related to tipped work; and (2) other negligible non-tipped work.  The decision provides helpful guidance to restaurant employers regarding the types of duties that tipped employees may perform at a reduced rate of pay.

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DOL Exemption Rules to Take Effect December 1, 2016

Making good on a 2014 directive from President Obama “to modernize and streamline” existing overtime regulations, the Department of Labor (DOL) today published its highly anticipated Final Rule Defining and Delimiting the Exemptions for Executive, Administrative, Professional, Outside Sales and Computer Employees. As expected, the Final Rule (which becomes effective December 1, 2016 ) more than doubles the current $455 weekly minimum salary required for employees to qualify for “white collar” exemptions to the minimum wage and overtime requirements under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The DOL expects its new Final Rule to extend minimum wage and overtime protections to more than 4.2 million Americans and increase employee wages by $12 billion over the next 10 years.

Key Changes under the DOL’s Final Rule

The FLSA requires that covered employees be paid minimum wage for all worked hours and overtime at a rate not less than one and one-half their regular rate of pay for all hours worked in excess of 40 hours in a single workweek. To qualify for exemption from the FLSA’s minimum wage and overtime requirements, an employee must be paid a predetermined minimum weekly salary (not subject to reduction based on variations in quality or quantity of work) and primarily perform certain job duties qualifying for one or more of the standard executive, professional or administrative “white collar” exemptions to the FLSA.

In June 2015 the DOL issued a Proposed Rule which gave employers a preview of the likely revisions to the exemption regulations. Today’s Final Rule differs from the DOL’s 2015 Proposed Rule in certain key areas.

Significant changes under the DOL’s Final Rule include the following:

Increase in the Salary Basis Requirement.

The Final Rule increases from $455 to $913 (or $47,476 annually) the minimum weekly salary level necessary for employees to qualify for a white collar exemption under the FLSA. This minimum weekly salary automatically will adjust every three years to a rate equaling the 40th percentile of full-time salaried workers in the nation’s lowest-wage Census region (currently the South). Minimum salary adjustments under the Final Rule will be published at least 150 days before their effective dates, with the first adjustment being effective January 2020. The minimum salary increase in the Final Rule is slightly lower than that contemplated in the Proposed Rule, with the DOL citing to public comments expressing concerns that the regulations should account for salaries paid in lower cost-of-living regions.

Increase in the Salary Requirement for the Highly Compensated Employee (HCE) Exemption.

The Final Rule increases from $100,000 to $134,004 the minimum total annual compensation necessary for a “highly compensated employee” to qualify for exemption under the FLSA. This minimum annual compensation also automatically will adjust every three years to an amount equal to the 90th percentile of full-time salaried employees nationally. Although the compensation increase in today’s Final Rule is larger than contemplated in the Proposed Rule, the change simply is due to an increase in the 90th percentile threshold from 2013 to the fourth quarter of 2014.

Automatic Triennial Updating.

The Proposed Rule contemplated updating the salary thresholds annually using either a wage index (i.e., a fixed-percentile approach using Current Population Survey data) or a price index (i.e., the CPI).  As noted above, the Final Rule has adopted the fixed-percentile approach, with updates to occur every three years rather than annually. Employers that submitted comments said they “strongly opposed” using a fixed-percentile method, arguing that it would result in the “ratcheting” of salaries – that is, with each successive salary update, employers would be expected to convert lower-earning exempt employees to hourly status; those employees would be removed from the CPS data; and the salary threshold would thus rapidly accelerate with each increase. The DOL largely discounted these concerns, finding a lack of historical evidence of “ratcheting” in analyzing data from the last salary increase in 2004. Nonetheless, the DOL did respond to employer comments that an annual update would be unduly volatile and would not provide sufficient notice, and instead adopted triennial updating.

Inclusion of Nondiscretionary Bonuses, Incentive Payments, and Commissions in the Salary Level Requirement.

Employers now will be allowed to use nondiscretionary bonuses and incentive pay to satisfy up to 10 percent of the DOL’s new salary standard, provided such bonuses/incentives are paid on at least a quarterly basis. Employers also will be able to “catch-up” by quarterly bonus and incentive payments the salary of any exempt employee that falls short of the minimum salary requirement by an amount of up to 10 percent.

Duties Tests.

Surprisingly, the DOL’s Final Rule makes no substantive changes to the standard duties tests required for the executive, administrative and professional exemptions. Although the DOL sought public comments on this issue, the DOL ultimately declined to adopt any changes to the standard duties tests.

Over the next six months, covered employers will need to review exempt positions to ensure compliance with DOL’s new standards. A few suggestions include:

Review Salary Minimums.

Employers may choose to increase the salaries of employees who fall below the DOL’s new $917 weekly minimum, or reclassify employees as nonexempt and take steps to ensure employees are paid a minimum wage and overtime premium in accordance with FLSA standards.

Review Employer Criteria for Establishing Exemption Status.

Employers can expect DOL enforcement initiatives in 2017 (and beyond) to focus on exemption status. Employers are well advised to use the DOL’s Final Rule as an opportunity to review the exemption classifications of all exempt positions to ensure compliance with FLSA standards.

Provide Education and Training to Key Employees.

Employers should consider investing in education and training of front-line managers and human resources representatives tasked with implementing new exemption standards. Employers also should consider development of a communication strategy and action plan for reclassification of affected employees.

2015 Elections — Roundup of Employment-Related Ballot Initiatives

Local governments or voters often pass statutes or ordinances on employment-related subjects that require employers to ensure that their policies are compliant not just on a state-by-state basis, but even on a city-by-city or county-by-county basis within the same state. During this past week’s election, voters around the country considered a number of local employment-related ballot initiatives, some noteworthy examples of which are below:

Voters in Elizabethtown, New Jersey Approve Paid Sick Leave

Elizabethtown, New Jersey joins a number of other cities (including several in New Jersey) in enacting a paid sick leave ordinance. Voters approved a measure that requires employers to offer one hour of paid sick time to employees for each 30 hours worked.

Voters in Houston, Texas Reject Anti-Discrimination Ordinance

Many cities have enacted local anti-discrimination ordinances which complement or mirror anti-discrimination statutes under state and federal law. In May 2014, the Houston city council passed an ordinance that would have banned discrimination based on characteristics already protected by federal law (such as age, sex and race), as well as sexual orientation and gender identity, which are not characteristics protected by federal law. In last week’s election, Houston voters rejected the ordinance.  Opponents of the ordinance had labelled it the “bathroom ordinance” and claimed that its provisions concerning transgender people would enable men who wear women’s clothes – and sexual predators – to access public women’s restrooms.

Minimum Wage Measures in Portland, Maine and Tacoma, Washington

Voters in Tacoma, Washington supported a phased-in increase to the city’s minimum wage to $12 by 2018, but rejected a more ambitious increase that would have immediately raised it to $15. Similarly, voters in Portland, Maine rejected a measure that would have increased the city’s minimum wage from $7.50 to $15 in just four years, instead sticking with a hike recently enacted by the city council that would raise it to $10.10 in 2016, $10.68 in 2017, and tie increases from 2018 forward to the Consumer Price Index.

Marijuana Initiatives in Ohio, Colorado and Michigan

The increasing trend toward marijuana decriminalization (and outright legalization) presents multiple issues for employers, including reconciling their drug-free workplace policies with medical marijuana patients’ rights, and whether or not they can punish employees for engaging in what is now deemed to be a legal activity. In Ohio, voters rejected a marijuana legalization measure that would have ended marijuana prohibition in the state. Nonetheless, most analysts believe that the rejection is not reflective of voters’ opposition to marijuana legalization per se, but rather opposition to the specifics of the ballot initiative, which would have granted an effective oligopoly on marijuana production within the state to a small handful of the initiative’s wealthy backers.   In Colorado, voters approved a ballot measure that gives state lawmakers permission to spend (rather than return to state residents, marijuana growers, and recreational users) $66.1 million in taxes collected from the sale of recreational marijuana, further legitimizing the state’s prior legalization of recreational use. And voters in the Michigan municipalities of Keego Harbor and Portage approved initiatives that effectively repealed the city’s prohibition on the possession, use and transfer of up to an ounce of recreational marijuana.

Employers can expect employment-related ballot initiatives similar to those listed above in upcoming elections. For example, building upon the passing of minimum wage increases in San Francisco and Los Angeles, it is likely that in 2016 California voters will consider a measure to increase the minimum wage to $15 statewide by 2021. Multi-jurisdictional employers should keep in mind that their policies may need to be re-evaluated, sometimes on a city-by-city basis, to ensure compliance with voter or legislatively enacted local ordinances and statutes.

Unpaid Internships – Training Programs or a Lesson in Class Actions?

Summer is quickly approaching, and eager students are lining up for internship opportunities, some of which may be unpaid.  The whole topic has caused a firestorm of news stories lately – including an NYU students’ petition to remove unpaid internship postings from the campus career center, and an auction by an on-line charity website for a six week unpaid internship at the UN NGO Committee on Human Rights (the current bid is $26,000).  Do unpaid internships run afoul of federal and state minimum wage laws?  The answer potentially is yes, but given recent successful challenges to class certification, employers now have useful guidance in developing defense strategies against such claims.

Last week, in Wang v. The Hearst Corporation, U.S.D.C. S.D.N.Y. Case No. 12-CV-00793, the court denied class certification in a case brought by interns at various Hearst-owned magazines.  The interns challenged Hearst’s practice of classifying them as unpaid interns, allegedly to avoid minimum wage and overtime laws under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) and New York state law.  The court found that the plaintiffs could not satisfy the commonality requirement for class certification.  While plaintiffs could demonstrate a corporate-wide policy of classifying proposed class members as unpaid interns, the nature of the internships varied greatly from magazine to magazine.  The court noted there was no evidence of a uniform policy among the magazines regarding the interns’ specific duties, training, or supervision.

Days later, attorneys for the defendant in Glatt v. Fox Searchlight Pictures Inc., U.S.D.C. S.D.N.Y. Case No. 11-CV-06784, made a similar argument to defeat class certification in a case in which Fox interns challenged their unpaid status under federal and New York state minimum wage and overtime laws.  In that case, the interns worked on the sets of different films or were based out of corporate offices, and weren’t governed by a centralized policy or procedure.  The defendant in Glatt argued that class certification should be denied because of the lack of a uniform policy.  While the court in Glatt has not yet ruled, these two cases suggest that, although claims by unpaid interns may persist, plaintiffs may find it increasingly difficult to sustain them as class actions.

In light of these cases, now is a good time to review the rules for internships.  According to the Department of Labor, internships in the for-profit private sector will be viewed as employment relationships for which the FLSA minimum wage and overtime rules will apply, unless the intern is truly receiving training which meets six criteria:  (1) the internship is similar to training that would be given in an educational environment; (2) the internship experience is for the benefit of the intern; (3) the intern is not replacing employees and works under close supervision; (4) the sponsor of the intern does not derive immediate benefit from intern’s activities and at times, its operations may actually be impeded; (5) the intern is not entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and (6) the sponsor and the intern understand the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.  As of 2010, the California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (“DLSE”) relaxed the multi-factor test it previously applied and now uses the same criteria as the DOL.

While the Hearst ruling is good news for employers, the case did not address the merits of the interns’ claims and does not mean employers can relax their compliance efforts.  If an employer improperly classifies an internship as “unpaid,” the employer could be liable for failure to pay minimum wage and overtime, penalties for failure to provide meal and rest breaks, as well as potential liability for violations of anti-discrimination and anti-harassment laws that apply to employees.  The bottom line is that employers should apply the DOL/DLSE six-factor test and if their internships do not meet the criteria, the interns should be paid at least minimum wage.

Editors note: Be sure to check out Kate’s guest blog post for thewrap.com on the use of interns by entertainment and media companies.