Our colleague Kara M. Maciel of Epstein Becker Green wrote a wage and hour update in this month’s Take 5 labor and employment newsletter.

Here’s a preview of the five items:

1. IRS Will Begin Taxing a Restaurant’s Automatic Gratuities as Service Charges
2. The New DOL Secretary, Tom Perez, Spells Out the WHD’s Enforcement Agenda
3. DOL Investigates Health Care Provider and Obtains $4 Million Settlement for Overtime Payments
4. Federal Court Strikes Down DOL Tip Pooling Rule
5. Take Preventative Steps When Facing WHD Audits

Read the full article here.

 

by Michael D. Thompson

Apple Inc.’s practice of requiring hourly employees to wait (off the clock) in order to undergo “personal package and bag checks” prior to meal breaks and at the end of shifts is the subject of a purported wage-hour collective action.

According to a complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, these security checks take approximately 50 minutes to 1.5 hours per week of uncompensated time to search for “possible store items or merchandise taken without permission and/or contraband.”

The lawsuit seeks to certify a nationwide collective action class under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, as well as classes in California and New York class for alleged violations of those states’ labor laws.

Bag check requirements are relatively common in the retail environment, and a similar lawsuit against Polo Ralph Lauren settled for $4,000,000.

Preliminary and Postliminary Activities

An analysis of the time spent waiting for security checks at the end of the workday is similar to the analysis in “donning and doffing” cases dealing with the compensability of “preliminary” or “postliminary” activities such as putting on uniforms or safety equipment before a shift begins.

The FLSA, as amended by the Portal-to-Portal Act of 1947, generally precludes compensation for activities that are “preliminary” or “postliminary” to the “principal activity or activities” of the employee. 29 U.S.C. § 254(a). But preliminary and postliminary activities are compensable if they are “integral and indispensable” to an employee’s principal duties. In IBP v. Alvarez, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that an activity is “integral and indispensable” if it is (1) “necessary to the principal work performed” and (2) “done for the benefit of the employer.”

The Impact of Busk v. Integrity Staffing Solutions, Inc.

The compensability of time spent clearing security was recently addressed in Busk v. Integrity Staffing Solutions, Inc., and the Ninth Circuit created a distinction that may spur a new wave of litigation.

In Busk, the District Court found time going through security checks to be non-compensable, and relied on Second Circuit and Eleventh Circuit precedent involving employees at a nuclear power plant and an airport construction project, respectively.

However, the Ninth Circuit reversed, concluding that those security screenings were not in place because of the nature of the employee’s work, and indeed were applicable to employees and non-employees. Accordingly, those screening were not integral to the principal activities of the employees.

Conversely, the Ninth Circuit held that requiring “screening to prevent employee theft … stems from the nature of the employees’ work (specifically, their access to merchandise),” and therefore may be compensable work time.

Perhaps with an eye towards this distinction, the complaint against Apple notes that its bag check policy applies to all employees, but not to customers.

De Minimis Time

To the extent that time spent on bag checks is not preliminary or postliminary, the time is likely to be compensable unless it is de minimis. 29 CFR 785.47 provides that “insubstantial or insignificant periods of time beyond the scheduled working hours … may be disregarded.” While there is no definitive maximum, periods of ten minutes or less will typically be regarded as de minimis.

The de minimis rule “applies only where there are uncertain and indefinite periods of time involved of a few seconds or minutes duration, and where the failure to count such time is due to considerations justified by industrial realities.” Furthermore, not all states recognize the de minimis principle.

Accordingly, employers with security check requirements should review those policies to determine whether the time involved is preliminary/postliminary, de minimis or compensable.

*The author appreciates the assistance of summer associate, Kristopher Reichardt, in the preparation of this article.

Black Friday.jpgBy Jennifer Barna

As shoppers and retailers get ready to celebrate “Black Friday” —  the kickoff to what we hope will  be a busy holiday shopping season —  it’s a good time for retail employers to review their policies on timekeeping and to ensure that non-exempt employees know how to record their working time.  Where is it not prohibited by state laws concerning meal and other breaks, employees may sometimes end up missing all or part of an unpaid meal break due to the demands of a busy sales floor. Employers need make sure employees are properly compensated for time spent working during what would have been an unpaid break, and to protect against allegations to the contrary under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act or similar state wage laws. It will go a long way in avoiding, and if necessary, defending against such claims if your company timekeeping policies are carefully drafted, circulated, and followed.

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals recently issued a ruling that provides some guidance on this issue.  In White v. Baptist Memorial Healthcare Corp, et al (No. 11-5717) (6th Cir., Nov. 6, 2012)  the plaintiff, a nurse, claimed that she was not compensated for work done during her unpaid meal break time at the defendant hospital.  The Sixth Circuit upheld the lower court’s dismissal of plaintiff’s claims because the employer’s handbook included an “exception log” mechanism that allowed employees to report when they missed all or part of a meal break, and that Plaintiff knew about, but failed to take advantage of, that mechanism.

Relying upon prior decisions from other federal appeals courts, the White Court found:  “Under the FLSA if an employer establishes a reasonable process for an employee to report uncompensated work time, the employer is not liable for non-payment if the employee fails to follow the established process.”  Employers should be guided by this finding, and ensure that they have policies in place that clearly inform non-exempt employees how to record or report all time worked, including instances of missed or interrupted meal breaks.

Having the appropriate policies in place is, of course, just the first step.  It is also imperative for those policies to be sufficiently communicated and enforced.  For example, in ruling for the employer in White, the Sixth Circuit found it significant that: (a) Plaintiff admittedly knew about the “exception log” policy in the handbook (and had, in fact, used it successfully on occasion to obtain pay for time worked during her meal break period); and  (b) there was no evidence that the defendant employer discouraged its employees from reporting time worked during meal breaks or that the employer was otherwise notified that their employees were failing to report time worked during meal breaks.

Retail employers should therefore ensure not only that their non-exempt employees know about the time recording policies, but also that their supervisory managers (whether non-exempt or exempt) who work “on the ground” at the retail locations know about, and enforce, the policies.  Even if a company has the right policies in place, it could all be for naught if there is evidence that managers routinely look the other way as employees are required to work through all or part of their unpaid meal break without compensation.

 

by Peter M. Panken, Michael S. Kun, Douglas Weiner, and Larissa Lalor-Rosado

Misclassification of employees as exempt from overtime compensation has become a cottage industry for plaintiff’s lawyers and for the United States Department of Labor (“DOL”) in the Obama years.  One of the most difficult issues is whether employees meet the so-called administrative exemption to the Wage Hour laws.  In Hines v. State Room, the United States Circuit Court of Appeals for the First Circuit offered some clarity and help to beleaguered employers holding that former banquet sales managers were exempt from overtime requirements under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”).

For more, see the full post at the EBG Wage & Hour Defense Blog, available by clicking here.

By: John F. Fullerton III and Douglas Weiner

The current prevalence of lawsuits for unpaid overtime compensation under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) by employees who claim they were misclassified by their current or former employer as “exempt” from overtime has been well-documented.  These lawsuits continue to present challenges to employers, not just in terms of the burdens and costs of defending the cases, but in the uncertainty of the potential financial exposure. As our colleagues have previously reported (here and here), there are two methods in which the employees can be compensated for the allegedly unpaid overtime wages in such a case.  Under the FLSA, overtime compensation for non-exempt employees is computed at “a time and half” rate for hours worked in excess of forty in a week.  In appropriate situations, however, when the employees have received a fixed salary for all hours worked (which is frequently what has occurred in a misclassification case because the employer has treated the employees as exempt from overtime), the overtime compensation owed to non-exempt salaried employees can and should be calculated based on the “half-time” or “fluctuating workweek” method.  This method of calculation can dramatically decrease the potential damages in a misclassification case.  Instead of dividing the weekly salary by forty to determine the regular rate of pay and paying 1 ½  times that rate for every hour worked in excess of forty, the weekly salary is instead divided by the actual number of hours the employee worked each week (in other words, the more overtime the employee worked, the lower the regular rate), and then paying an additional ½ of that rate for every hour worked in excess of forty in a week rather than 1 ½ times that rate.  Conceptually, the salary pays straight time for all weekly hours, and only additional half-time is due for weekly hours over 40 to pay the time-and-one-half required by law.

Guidance on the requirements for establishing prospectively a lawful fluctuating workweek overtime compensation system for salaried non-exempt employees is provided by U.S. Department of Labor regulations, 29 C.F.R. § 778.114.  Employers have frequently argued that this regulatory provision should also apply retroactively if it later turns out that a non-exempt employee was misclassified as exempt.  A split in authority has arisen, as some district courts have held that because that regulation requires contemporaneous payment of overtime, and a “clear mutual understanding” of the parties, the fluctuating workweek method cannot be applied retroactively to calculate damages in a misclassification case.  Many other courts have rejected that interpretation and have applied the fluctuating workweek method retroactively.  Even the Department of Labor has in the past endorsed the fluctuating workweek method in satisfying unpaid overtime claims in a misclassification case.

The dispute over the correct interpretation of the regulations has become increasingly irrelevant as a growing line of cases eschew the regulations in favor of reliance on the Supreme Court itself.  In Overnight Motor Transp. Co. v. Missel, 316 U.S. 572 (1942), the Court held that when an employee and employer have an agreement in which the employee is paid a fixed weekly wage for hours that fluctuate from week to week, the half-time method is the correct way to calculate damages in an unpaid overtime case.  Subsequent lower court decisions and the Department of Labor have made clear that the agreement need not be in writing, but rather, can be demonstrated through the course of conduct between the employer and employee.  In other words, if the employee was treated as exempt, without deduction from the weekly salary for absences from the office, then the requisite mutual understanding has been established.

A few months ago, the Supreme Court denied certiorari (PDF) in a Seventh Circuit case that would likely have presented the opportunity for a definitive ruling on (or reconfirmation of) the use of the half-time method in a misclassification case.  But significantly, five federal circuit courts have now approved the use of the half-time method—the First, Fourth, Fifth, Seventh and Tenth Circuits (All PDFs) —while not a single circuit has rejected this method.  And the more recent decisions (Fourth and Seventh Circuits) have broken away from reliance on the regulations and have, more appropriately, grounded their decisions on the Supreme Court’s decision in Overnight Motor Transportation Co.  Thus, the weight of authority is increasingly coming down on the side of the employers on this issue.

EpsteinBeckerGreen will be continuing to monitor developments on this topic and providing updates as appropriate.  In the mean time, employers who are sued or threatened with legal action for unpaid overtime under the FLSA should continue to push for the half-time method of calculating damages, in litigation or during settlement discussions, in any case in which the employees were clearly paid a fixed salary regardless of the number of hours actually worked each week, as the case law shows strong signs of developing positively in this direction.

The EEOC has reported that it receives more charges of retaliation than any other type of employment discrimination charge, and that there are thousands of cases involving allegations of illegal retaliation filed every year.  Retaliation is often prohibited by statute, but the Supreme Court has expanded the scope of actionable retaliation lately, holding that there was a cause of action for retaliation even though the statute in question did not expressly cover the situation at issue.

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) prohibits discrimination against an employee “because such employee has filed any complaint” under the Act.  In Kasten v. Saint Gobain Performance Plastics Corp. (PDF), 563 U.S. ___ (2011), the U.S. Supreme Court held that, although there can be no retaliation if the employer is not on fair notice of the initial complaint, a complaint need not necessarily be in writing to trigger protection under the Act.

Kasten had complained about the placement of the time clocks between the area where required work clothing was donned and doffed and the work area, such that employees were not paid for the time they spent donning and doffing their work clothes.  The employer had a grievance system that allowed for oral complaints of violations of any law.  Kasten testified that he “raised a concern” with his lead operator, his shift supervisor, the human resources manager and the operations manager that  the placement of the time clocks was illegal, but he had not “filed” any sort of written “complaint.”

The District Court and the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals both held that oral complaints are insufficient to trigger retaliation protection under the FLSA.  The Supreme Court reversed and remanded.  Justice Breyer, writing for the 6-2 majority, held that the Act requires only “fair notice” of a complaint, reasoning that “it is difficult to see how an employer who does not (or should not) know an employee has made a complaint could discriminate because of that complaint,” and left it to lower courts to decide whether “Kasten will be able to satisfy the Act’s notice requirement” based on his oral grievance.

What steps can employers take in response to the Kasten decision?

  • Employers are well advised to institute a formal grievance procedure and specify that the procedure is the appropriate way to put the employer on notice of any complaints. Raising grievances orally with low level supervisors then at least arguably may not be enough to trigger retaliation protection.
  • Although many formal grievance procedures have an oral first step, employers would be wise to require writing early on in the process.  This has the advantage of identifying exactly what is being complained about so the initial complaint does not become inflated years later once a plaintiff’s lawyer gets involved.
  • Employers should train their supervisors and managers to make Human Resources and upper management aware when employees complain about allegedly illegal activities. A complaint may at first appear to be mere griping, but it could be the basis for a lawsuit or even a union organizing campaign.