Category Archives: Fair Labor Standards Act

IMPORTANT DOL UPDATE: The Final Rule on Doubling White Collar Salaries Is Shot Down By Texas Judge

Contributed by Heather Bailey, September 6, 2017

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Concept of time with businessman holding a clock

Previously, we reported to you on the U.S. Department of Labor’s (“DOL”) Final Rule that raised the minimum salary threshold required to qualify for the Fair Labor Standards Act’s (“FLSA”) “white-collar” exemptions (executive, professional and administrative classification) from $455 per week ($23,660 annually) to $913 per week ($47,476 annually) as of December 1, 2016 (see our prior articles: U.S. DOL Publishes Final Overtime Rule and; Are you ready for December 1st? The FLSA Salary Changes Are Almost Here).

The Obama administration’s goal with this Final Rule, announced on 5/23/2016, was to give approximately 4 million workers the ability to earn overtime pay, instead of getting paid a fixed salary since many employers would not be able to afford to pay their otherwise exempt employees $47,476 annually. Implementation of this new rule had been temporarily stalled in a federal court in Texas just prior to it going into effect this past December 1st (see our prior articles: Court Enjoins DOL Overtime Rule and; Business Realities Under the Halted DOL Final Overtime Rule).

However, on August 31, 2017, Judge Amos L. Mazzant of the United States District Court, Eastern District of Texas answered many business owners’ prayers by ruling the DOL indeed exceeded its authority by more than doubling the minimum salary threshold for exempting white-collar employees (see the full case here).

The judge did not say the DOL could not raise the minimum salary at all. Rather, relying heavily on Chevron, USA, Inc. v. Nat. Res. Def. Council, Inc., 467 U.S. 837 (1984), the judge stated that by more than doubling the current minimum threshold, the DOL effectively eliminated the need for looking to the employees’ actual duties and responsibilities—which was the essence of Congress’s intent when it created the FLSA white collar exemptions. The judge looked to the plain meaning of what it means to work in an executive, administrative and professional capacity concluding the primary focus was not the salary minimum but instead the actual duties and responsibilities.

What are the ramifications? The Department of Justice voluntarily dismissed its appeal of Judge Mazzant’s earlier preliminary injunction ruling putting the Final Rule on hold, so it seems unlikely it will appeal this ruling. However, this decision could catapult the Trump administration to issue a new rule providing for a more moderate increase in the minimum salary threshold – one that does not vitiate the primary focus of the “white collar” overtime exemptions: the employees’ actual duties and responsibilities.

Practice Tips:

  • The good news for now is that employers can continue to follow the previous DOL regulations for white collar exemptions (i.e., duties test and salary test).
  • If you did not do so previously, analyze your exempt positions to confirm they meet the duties test and are truly exempt positions. For example, is your manager truly a manager or is she really a lead worker? Is this manager hiring, firing and disciplining two or more employees?  Is your payroll clerk clearly just doing data entry or is he exercising independent discretion and judgment?  If the position does not meet the duties test, you transitioning the position to make it overtime eligible.
  • Ensure management is trained to enforce policies related to overtime pay such as those relating to working time, time clock procedures, meal and rest breaks, working off the clock issues, etc.
  • Did you already make changes to your employees’ pay or duties based upon the final rule going into effect on December 1, 2016?  While there are ways to change those decisions (i.e., you can change an employee’s pay moving forward for work not yet performed), you need to keep in mind morale issues for employees whose compensation may decrease either by way of a salary reduction or loss of overtime pay.  In these situations, it is highly recommended that you work with your counsel on determining the best practices for your business and your workforce.

With the judge’s ruling, many business owners will be able to find some comfort in being able to keep their exempt employees on a reasonable salary without having to break the bank.

Cash-in-Lieu of Benefits May be Subject to Overtime

Contributed by Kelly Haab-Tallitsch, August 25, 2016

Compensation to employees who opt out of health insurance or other benefits, known as a “cash-in-lieu” program, can be an attractive option for both employers looking to manage skyrocketing health care costs and employees looking for a little extra cash. But a recent ruling by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals highlights a significant risk to employers of such programs.

In Flores v. City of San Gabriel, 2016 WL 3090782 (June 2, 2016), the first case of its kind, the court held that under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) cash payments made to an employee in lieu of benefits must be included in the employee’s regular rate of pay for the purpose of calculating overtime.

Health Insurance and MoneyThe employer in Flores, the City of San Gabriel, sponsored a flexible benefit plan that provided employees with a certain monetary allowance to purchase health insurance and other benefits. Employees who opted out of some or all of the benefits received a cash payment for the amount of their remaining allowance. The employer did not include these cash-in-lieu of benefits payments in the employees’ regular rates of pay when it calculated overtime. A group of employees sued, alleging that the exclusion of the cash-in-lieu payments from overtime calculations was a violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act and they had been underpaid for the overtime hours they worked.

The court in Flores agreed, ruling that the employer’s cash-in-lieu-of benefits payments were “compensation for services” (similar to other types of bonuses) that must be included in the regular rate of pay for overtime purposes. The court also held that the employer’s actions were a willful violation because it did not do enough to determine if it was complying with the law. As a result the employer was liable for double the amount of unpaid overtime compensation for the three year period before the complaint was filed.

Cash-in-lieu of benefits programs were already dealt a blow in late 2015 when Treasury Department guidance indicated that most cash-in-lieu payments will be included in the determination of a health plan’s “affordability” for purposes of the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) employer mandate.

What Does This Mean for Employers?

The City of San Gabriel has asked the Ninth Circuit to reconsider its decision, but until and unless the decision is actually overturned, employers operating in the Ninth Circuit should review their cash-in-lieu of benefit programs and payroll practices to ensure compliance with the FLSA.

The court’s ruling in Flores is a groundbreaking decision and it’s too early to tell whether courts outside of the Ninth Circuit will rule similarly. Employers outside of the Ninth Circuit who offer (or are considering) cash payments to employees who opt out of health benefits should consult with counsel to assess the impact of legal developments in this area.

The List of Gotchas Continues to Grow for Employers Offering Cash-In-Lieu of Benefits

Contributed by Rebecca Dobbs Bush, June 10, 2016

Years ago, providing cash to employees that declined benefits was fairly common. Over the past few years, increasing regulations have made that practice mostly obsolete. Then, on June 2, 2016, the Ninth Circuit added FLSA overtime implications to the list of gotchas.

We routinely receive questions from employers contemplating offering cash to employees that decline benefits. Non-exhaustive examples of the concerns are:

  • The option needs to be provided through a cafeteria plan
  • The cash amount may impact “affordability” under the ACA
  • The option cannot enable/require an employee to purchase an individual policy
  • The option needs to be offered to all eligible employees and not just a select few or those with high claims
  • Depending on the timing/structure of the payments, an employer can risk losing overpayments to employees that leave mid-year
  • With events such as marriage or birth of a child, employees can still exercise HIPAA special enrollment rights
  • Unintended consequences – individuals with high claims will not likely be the ones declining coverage

If this isn’t enough reason to change course, the Ninth Circuit, in Flores v. City of San Gabriel, confirmed that employers need to also account for overtime obligations under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”).

CashThe City offered a set amount to employees for purchasing benefits. An employee could decline coverage and receive the unused portion as an extra cash payment on her regular paycheck. In a case of “first impression” (i.e., where no court has decided the issue before), the court determined cash payments to employees should have been included in regular rate of pay and overtime calculations.

The City argued that payments should not be part of the “regular rate” because they were not for “hours worked” and similar to payments such as vacation or sick time. The court did not agree.  Instead, the court held that a payment may not be excluded from the employees’ regular rate of pay where it is generally understood as “compensation for work, even though the payment is not directly tied to specific hours worked by an employee.” The court likened the payments to board and lodging which is not pay for “hours worked” but is still included in the “regular rate.”

The City also argued that the  payments were not part of the “regular rate” because they were made “incidental” to a “bona fide” benefit plan. The City lost this argument for 2 reasons: 1) the payments were not to a third party; and 2) the payments were not “incidental” to the plan, as they represented more than 40% of contributions to the plan.

All of this begs the question – Can an employer still possibly structure a cash-in-lieu offering to its employees that is compliant with all state and federal laws?  What is clear is that any employer offering or contemplating a cash-in-lieu option should immediately contact experienced counsel in order to verify compliance and/or for assistance in promptly remedying non-compliance.

URGENT ALERT: U.S. DOL PUBLISHES FINAL OVERTIME RULE

Contributed by Jeff Risch and Sara Zorich, May 18, 2016

Today the US Department of Labor (“DOL”) issued its long awaited final rule increasing the minimum salary requirements under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”).

Key Provisions of the Final Rule

The Final Rule focuses primarily on updating the salary and compensation levels needed for Executive, Administrative and Professional workers to be exempt.

Of particular significance, the Final Rule:

  1. Sets the standard salary level at $913 per week – $47,476 annually;
  2. Sets the total annual compensation requirement for highly compensated employees (HCE) subject to a minimal duties test to $134,00; and
  3. Establishes a mechanism for automatically updating the salary and compensation levels every three years to maintain the levels using the above percentiles.

Additionally, the Final Rule amends the salary basis test to allow employers to use nondiscretionary bonuses and incentive payments (including commissions) to satisfy up to 10 percent of the new standard salary level.

The effective date of the final rule is December 1, 2016. The initial increases to the standard salary level (from $455 to $913 per week) and HCE total annual compensation requirement (from $100,000 to $134,004 per year) will be effective on that date. Future automatic updates to those thresholds will occur every three years, beginning on January 1, 2020.

A copy of the final rule as well as other information can be found here.

In Light of these Final Regulations, Employers MUST Analyze the Following:

  1. How many of your current employees are affected by this final rule?
  1. Is a salary increase for those who do not currently meet the salary requirement a plausible financial decision to the required increases?
  1. Are there job positions that should now be reclassified as non-exempt and the employees will now be entitled to overtime if they work over 40 hours?
  1. Review your handbooks and policies regarding exempt and non-exempt status.
  1. Tighten up your policies regarding working overtime and analyze the possibility of limiting the number of overtime hours worked for non-exempt employees.
  1. Review and update policies and practices concerning “off the clock” time and ensure that there are proper controls regarding all hours actually worked by non-exempt employees.
  1. Review benefits applicable to exempt and non-exempt employees and how a change in status may impact the benefits to your employees.

Employers have OPTIONS Regarding these Proposed DOL Changes:

  1. Increase the employee’s salary to meet the new regulations so the employee continues to meet the exemption;
  1. Keep the salary the same and pay the required overtime payments based on the employee’s regular rate of pay when the employee works over 40 hours (but you must track all hours worked);
  1. Reduce the employee’s salary or change the employee’s pay to a lower hourly rate so the total earnings do not change after overtime is paid;
  1. Eliminate the employee working any overtime hours; or
  1. Some combination of the above options including possible Reductions in Force.

Legal counsel will be able to assist employers in navigating these business changes.

Urgent Alert: U.S. DOL Proposes Major Changes to Exempt Salary Status

Contributed by Jeff Risch and Sara Zorich

Today, the U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”) has announced that they are issuing a proposed rule to increase the minimum salary requirements under the Fair Labor Standards Act for exempt employees. A draft version can be found at: http://www.dol.gov/whd/overtime/NPRM2015/OT-NPRM.pdf. The final proposed rule will be issued in the Federal Register and will provide a comment period for the public.

The proposed rule sets forth guidance and requests comment on the following proposed changes:

  1. Set the minimum salary level to qualify for the white collar exemptions at 40% of the national weekly earnings for full-time salaried employees ($921 per week or $47,892 annually but expected to increase to $970 a week and $50,440 annually in 2016);
  2. Increase the minimum salary for Highly Compensated Employees to 90% of the national weekly earnings of full-time salaried workers ($122,148 annually);
  3. Establish a mechanism for automatically updating the minimum salary to meet the exemption on a yearly basis. While the proposed rule sets forth different types of mechanisms for calculating the automatic update (using a fixed percentile of wage earnings or using the CPI-U (an economic indicator for measuring inflation)) they do not identify which mechanism will be utilized;
  4. Increase the minimum salary level for exempt employees in American Samoa to $774 per week; and
  5. Change 29 CFR 541.709 to increase the current base rate for employees in the motion picture industry from $695 to $1,404 per week.

As stated, this is a proposed rule that is subject to a required comment period. The rule will not go into effect until the comment period has ended. However, employers MUST be cognizant of the proposed salary increases and begin contemplating how this is going to affect your current workforce.

Further, while not proposing any current rulemaking on the issues identified below, the proposed rule requests public comment on the following:

  1. Whether to allow non-discretionary, incentive bonuses and/or commissions to satisfy 10% of the standard salary requirement for the white collar exemptions and if such are allowed how often these bonuses/commissions must be paid (monthly or more frequently);
  2. Whether changesshould be made to the duties test for thewhite collar exemptions including:
    1. Whether employees should be required to spend a minimum amount of time performing work that is their primary duty for qualifying for the exemption and what that minimum amount should be, if any?
    2. Should the DOL follow the California state model and require 50% of an employee’s time be spent performing the employee’s exempt primary duty?
    3. Does the current duties test appropriately distinguish between exempt and non-exempt employees? Should the long/short tests be brought back?
    4. Is the concurrent duties regulation for executive employees (allowing the performance of both exempt and non-exempt duties concurrently) working or should there be a limit on the amount of non-exempt work?
  3. Whether the Department should add examples of additional occupations to provide guidance for employers in administering the exemptions?
  4. Examples from employers in the computer and technology industries as to what additional occupational titles or categories should be included in the examples along with duties that would generally meet or fail the exemption.

These additional inquiries are indications that the DOL is looking to potentially make further revisions to the exemptions.

In Light of the Proposed Regulations, Employers Should Analyze the Following:

  1. How many of your current employees will be affected by this new rule?
  2. Is a salary increase for those who do not currently meet the salary requirement a plausible financial decision to the required increases?
  3. Are there job positions that should now be reclassified as non-exempt and the employees will now be entitled to overtime if they work over 40 hours?
  4. Tightening up policies regarding working overtime and working with management to limit the number of overtime hours worked for non-exempt employees.
  5. Reviewing handbooks and policies regarding exempt and non-exempt status.
  6. Reviewing benefits applicable to exempt and non-exempt employees and how a change in status may impact the benefits to your employees.

Employers have OPTIONS Regarding these Proposed DOL Changes:

  1. Increase the employee’s salary to that proposed in the new regulations so they continue to meet the exemption;
  2. Keep the salary the same and pay the required overtime payments based on the employee’s regular rate of pay;
  3. Reduce the employee’s salary or change the employee to hourly at a lower rate so the total earnings do not change after overtime is paid;
  4. Eliminate the employee working any overtime hours; or
  5. Some combination of the above options.

The attorneys at SmithAmundsen are here to assist employers in navigating these business changes.