Five Critical Wage and Hour Issues Impacting Employers

Take 5 Newsletter

Take 5 by Epstein Becker Green Labor and EmploymentIt is no secret that the wage and hour requirements found in the myriad of federal, state, and local laws and regulations present unique challenges to employers across the country. Those challenges are further complicated by the seemingly ever-changing interpretations of those laws by the courts and the governing agencies, not to mention revisions to the laws. Increased agency investigations and the continued growth of litigation, particularly class actions and collective actions, only heighten the need for employers to focus on wage and hour compliance.

As the end of the calendar year is now in sight, the following five issues in particular deserve attention:

  1. Compliance with the New DOL Overtime Exemption Rule May Create Unexpected Challenges for Employers
  2. Application of the FLSA’s Tip-Credit Requirements Remains Hotly Disputed
  3. Employers Must Continually Navigate a Minimum-Wage Patchwork Across America
  4. The DOL Focuses on Joint-Employer Liability
  5. The U.S. Supreme Court May Review the Enforceability of Class Action Waivers

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  1. Compliance with the New DOL Overtime Exemption Rule May Create Unexpected Challenges for Employers

By Michael S. Kun

In May of this year, the U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”) announced its final rule to increase the minimum salary for white-collar exemptions, effective December 1, 2016. With less than two months to go before that new rule takes effect, employers still have time to decide how to address those otherwise exempt employees whose current salaries would not satisfy the new rule, by either increasing their salaries or converting them to non-exempt status. 

The New Salary Thresholds

Effective December 1, 2016, the salary threshold for the executive, administrative, and professional exemption will effectively double, increasing from $23,660 ($455 per week) to $47,476 ($913 per week). This increase is but one of the changes that goes into effect on December 1.

The total annual compensation requirement for “highly compensated employees” subject to a minimal duties test will also increase from $100,000 to $134,004. The salary basis test will be amended to allow employers to use non-discretionary bonuses and incentive payments, such as commissions, to satisfy up to 10 percent of the salary threshold. And the salary threshold for the white-collar exemptions will automatically update every three years to “ensure that they continue to provide useful and effective tests for exemption.”

On first glance, dealing with the increase in the minimum salaries for white-collar exemptions would not appear to create much of a challenge for employers—they must decide whether to increase employees’ salaries or convert them to non-exempt status. Many employers that have already reviewed the issue and its repercussions would likely disagree with the assessment that this is a simple task. The decisions not only impact the affected employees but also affect the employers’ budgets and compensation structures, potentially creating unwanted salary compressions or forcing employers to adjust the salaries of other employees.

In addition, converting employees to non-exempt status requires an employer to set new hourly rates for the employees. If that is not done carefully, it could result in the employee receiving an unanticipated increase in compensation—perhaps a huge one— or an unexpected decrease in annual compensation.

The Impact on Compensation Structures

For otherwise exempt employees whose compensation already satisfies the new minimum salaries, nothing need be done to comply with the new DOL rule. But that does not mean that those employees will not be affected by the new rule. Employers that raise the salaries of other employees to comply with the new thresholds could create operational or morale issues for those whose salaries are not being adjusted. It is not difficult to conceive of situations where complying with the rule by only addressing the compensation of those who fall below the threshold would result in a lower-level employee leapfrogging over a higher-level employee in terms of compensation, or where it results in unwanted salary compression. Salary shifts could also affect any analysis of whether the new compensation structure adversely affects individuals in protected categories. A female senior manager who is now being paid only several hundred dollars per year more than the lower-level male manager might well raise a concern about gender discrimination if her salary is not also adjusted. 

The Impact of Increasing Salaries

For otherwise exempt employees who currently do not earn enough to satisfy the new minimum salary thresholds, employers have two choices: increase the salary to satisfy the new threshold or convert the employee to non-exempt status. Converting employees to non-exempt status can create challenges in attempting to set their hourly rates (addressed separately below).

If, for example, an otherwise exempt employee currently earns a salary of $47,000 per year, the employer may have an easy decision to give the employee a raise of at least $476 to satisfy the new threshold. But many decisions would not be so simple, particularly once they are viewed outside of a vacuum. What about the employee earning $40,000? Should that employee be given a raise of more than $7,000 or should she be converted to non-exempt status? It is not difficult to see how one employer would choose to give an employee a $7,000 raise while another would choose to convert that employee to non-exempt status.

What if the amount of an increase seems small, but it would have a large impact because of the number of employees affected? A salary increase of $5,000 for a single employee to meet the new salary threshold may not have a substantial impact upon many employers. But what if the employer would need to give that $5,000 increase to 500 employees across the country to maintain their exempt status? Suddenly, maintaining the exemption would carry a $2,500,000 price tag. And that is not a one-time cost; it is an annual one that would likely increase as the salary threshold is updated.

The Impact of Reclassifying an Employee as Non-Exempt

If an employer decides to convert an employee to non-exempt status, it faces a new challenge—setting the employee’s hourly rate. Doing that requires much more thought than punching numbers into a calculator.

If the employer “reverse engineers” an hourly rate by just taking the employee’s salary and assuming the employee works 52 weeks a year and 40 hours each week, it will result in the employee earning the same amount as before so long as she does not work any overtime. The employee will earn more than she did before if she works any overtime at all. And if she works a significant amount of overtime, the reclassification to non-exempt status could result in the employee earning significantly more than she earned before as an exempt employee. If she worked 10 hours of overtime a week, she would effectively receive a 37 percent increase in compensation.

But calculating the employee’s new hourly rate based on an expectation that she will work more overtime than is realistic would result in the employee earning less than she did before. If, for instance, the employer calculated an hourly rate by assuming that the employee would work 10 hours of overtime each week, and if she worked less than that, she would earn less than she did before—perhaps significantly less. That, of course, could lead to a severe morale issue—or to the unwanted departure of a valued employee.

  1. Application of the FLSA’s Tip-Credit Requirements Remains Hotly Disputed

By Michael D. Thompson

Over the past year, there has been an increased discussion of Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) requirements for tipped employees. The courts have focused on a number of issues related to tipped employees, including addressing who can participate in tip pools and whether certain deductions may be made from tips. While the FLSA requires employers to pay a minimum wage of $7.25 per hour in most cases, Section 203(m) of the FLSA provides that employers may take a “tip credit” and pay as little as $2.13 per hour to employees who customarily and regularly receive tips, so long as two criteria are satisfied:

  • the employee’s wages and tips are at least equal to the minimum wage, and
  • all tips “received” by a tipped employee are actually retained by the employee or added into a tip pool that aggregates the tips of a group of tipped employees.

Notably, 29 CFR § 531.55 states that a “compulsory charge for service . . . imposed on a customer by an employer’s establishment, is not a tip . . . .” However, some states (such as New York) have their own requirements for determining whether a service charge will be considered a “tip.”

Who Can Be Treated as a Tipped Employee?

When a tip pool is covered by Section 203(m) of the FLSA, an employer may not divert tips from tipped employees by including “non-customarily tipped employees” in the tip pools. But whether an employee customarily (and regularly) receives tips may be unclear.

In Montano v. Montrose Restaurant, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit considered a tip pool in which the employer included a “coffeeman,” and the parties submitted conflicting evidence regarding the coffeeman’s duties. The Fifth Circuit concluded that an employee can be part of a tip pool if it can be expected that the customer intended the employee to receive a portion of the tip. Satisfying that requirement depends on such factors as whether the employee had more than a de minimis interaction with the customers who leave the undesignated tips and whether the employee is engaging in customer service functions.

In Schaefer v. Walker Bros. Enterprises, the Seventh Circuit evaluated a plaintiff’s contention that he and other employees at his restaurant (who primarily worked in a tipped capacity) had to be paid the full minimum wage during any time spent performing non-tipped work. The Seventh Circuit noted that the DOL’s Field Operations Handbook states that an employer may pay the tip-credit rate for time that tipped employees spend on non-tipped duties “related to” their tipped work. According to the Seventh Circuit, making coffee, cleaning tables, and “ensuring that hot cocoa is ready to serve” and that “strawberries are spread on the waffles” are activities related to a tipped server’s work. The Seventh Circuit characterized other duties, however, such as wiping down burners and woodwork and dusting picture frames, as “problematic” because they did not seem to be “closely related to tipped duties.” But the time spent on those duties was “negligible” and therefore did not require the restaurants to pay the normal minimum wage rather than the tip-credit rate for those minutes.

Can Credit Card Fees Be Deducted from “All Tips”?

In Steele v. Leasing Enterprises, Ltd., the Fifth Circuit considered whether an employee is receiving “all tips” when an employer deducts the costs and fees associated with collecting tips that are paid through a customer’s credit card.

To offset costs associated with credit card tips, the defendant retained 3.25 percent of any tips paid by credit card. According to the defendant, the costs included not only fees charged by the card issuer, but also the cost of cash deliveries made by an armored vehicle three times per week to ensure that the employees could be paid their tips on a daily basis (as the employees had requested).

Based on prior authority from the Sixth Circuit and a DOL opinion letter, the Fifth Circuit agreed that the defendant could offset credit card tips by the amount of the credit card issuer fees and still satisfy the requirements of Section 203(m). One week later, the Southern District of Ohio reached a similar conclusion in Craig v. Landry’s, Inc., ruling that “controlling precedent specifically permits” the deduction of credit card processing fees as long as the amount of the deduction “reasonably approximates the charge incurred by the employer.”

What Other Fees or Costs Can Be Deducted from “All Tips”?

After approving the deduction of credit card issuer fees from the gross tips in Steele, the Fifth Circuit turned to the question of whether an employer violates Section 203(m)’s requirements if the employer deducts costs other than direct fees charged by the credit card issuers. The defendant argued that employers could deduct the additional expenditures associated with paying credit card tips and still maintain the tip credit. Specifically, the defendant argued that the additional costs that it was incurring in arranging for the payment of tips paid via credit card, such as the cost of the armored car deliveries to its restaurants, could be deducted from the gross tips.

The Fifth Circuit concluded that “an employer only has a legal right to deduct those costs that are required to make such a collection.” While the defendant had no choice but to pay to credit card issuer fees, the costs relating to its thrice-weekly armored car deliveries were discretionary costs resulting from internal business decisions by the defendant. Therefore, deducting those amounts from employees’ tips was a violation of Section 203(m).

It is worth noting the Eastern District of New York added an interesting twist to this principle in Widjaja v. Kang Yue USA Corp. The court had previously ruled that the defendant violated the minimum wage as a result of, among other things, improperly withholding 11.5 percent of credit card tips. In a late-2015 ruling on damages, the court found that the defendant was liable for the difference between the minimum wage and the hourly wage that it actually paid its tipped employees. Moreover, the court in Widjaja held that the wage deficiency could not be offset by the tips actually received by the tipped employees because those tips were not an hourly wage. Consequently, because it improperly applied the tip-credit rule, the employer received no credit against the minimum wage for the tips actually received by its tipped employees. 

Is There a Cause of Action for Withheld Tips If the Employer Does Not Take a Tip Credit?

Several years ago, the DOL revised 29 C.F.R. § 531.52 to provide that all tips are the property of the employee and, thus, must be passed along to the tipped employee or a pool of tipped employees regardless of whether the employer has taken a tip credit under Section 203(m). Because the FLSA, on its face, does not specifically prohibit or address wage deductions that do not result in minimum-wage violations, there has been substantial controversy regarding the DOL’s authority to issue this regulation.

Earlier this year, in Oregon Rest. & Lodging Ass’n v. Perez, the Ninth Circuit noted that Section 203(m) of the FLSA is silent as to employers that do not take a tip credit. Therefore, the Ninth Circuit concluded that the DOL has the authority to regulate “tip pooling” practices even if employers do not take tip credits. Conversely, this past summer, federal courts in Florida and Georgia arguably joined with the position taken by the Fourth Circuit and courts in Maryland, New York, and Utah that Section 203(m) of the FLSA does not create a cause of action for improperly withheld tips unless the employer is taking a tip credit.

  1. Employers Must Continually Navigate a Minimum-Wage Patchwork Across America

By Kevin Sullivan

Perhaps in response to protests brought by employees and their advocates in recent years, states, counties, and cities across America have been increasing their minimum wage in piecemeal fashion. Few employers are fortunate enough to need worry about only one minimum wage—the federal minimum wage that is the floor below which employers may not go (unless an employer is not covered under the FLSA). Most large employers that operate in multiple states must now navigate a minimum-wage patchwork in which the hourly rate varies from state to state and, sometimes, between counties and cities.

Although the federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, 29 states and the District of Columbia have a minimum wage greater than the federal minimum wage. And those states are consistently increasing their minimum wage—New Jersey just passed legislation increasing its minimum wage from $8.38 per hour to $8.44 per hour, effective January 1, 2017, which is also when the Montana minimum wage will go from $8.05 to $8.15 per hour.

California is arguably the most difficult minimum-wage patchwork for employers to navigate. From a present minimum wage of $10 per hour, the California minimum wage will increase one dollar per hour each year until it reaches $15 per hour in 2022. But those increases also result in increasing the minimum salary that must be paid to employees who qualify for most overtime exemptions in California. Because most exempt employees in California must make at least twice the minimum wage on an annual basis, the current minimum salary for exempt employees who work for employers having more than 25 employees will increase from the present minimum of $41,600 per year to a minimum of $62,400 by 2022. (However, if the DOL’s rule goes into effect on December 1, 2016, requiring a new minimum salary of $47,476, then that will be the new floor below which employers may not pay their employees on a salary basis.)

In addition to minimum-wage increases on a statewide level, numerous California cities and counties have passed ordinances increasing their own minimum wages. From San Diego to Berkeley, the minimum wage in many cities has increased quicker than the state minimum wage. California’s minimum wage is presently $10.00 per hour. Employers in Santa Clara and Palo Alto, however, must pay their employees at least $11.00 per hour. Employees across the bay in Oakland must be paid at least $12.25 per hour. San Diego employers must pay their employees $10.50 per hour, as do Santa Monica employers that employ more than 25 employees.

California cities are not the only ones that have increased their minimum wage faster than their resident states. Employers in Albuquerque have had an $8.50 minimum wage since 2013, greater than the $7.50 required under New Mexico law. Similarly, Chicago has a $10.50 minimum wage, although Illinois mandates only $8.25. Seattle businesses that employ less than 500 persons must pay their employees $12.00 per hour, but Washington has a minimum wage of only $9.47.

  1. The DOL Focuses on Joint-Employer Liability

By Jeffrey H. Ruzal

On January 20, 2016, the DOL issued Wage and Hour Division Administrator’s Interpretation 2016-1 (“AI”) providing that businesses that use employees of third parties may be considered “joint employers” of those workers for purposes of compliance with the FLSA. The genesis of the joint-employment AI is the DOL’s expectation that businesses may seek to avoid the high costs and potential liabilities of maintaining their own employee workforce. 

Although this AI is less than a year old, there are longstanding federal regulations on joint employment stating that when the employee performs work that simultaneously benefits two or more employers, or works for two or more employers at different times during the workweek, a joint-employment relationship generally will be considered to exist in situations where: (1) employers share an employee’s services, (2) one employer acts in the interest of the other employer in relation to the employee, or (3) one employer controls the other employer and therefore shares control of the other employer.

The DOL’s AI on joint employment goes far beyond the streamlined regulations in explaining the complex and comprehensive analysis to determine whether joint employment exists. To that end, the AI focuses on the DOL’s newly envisioned concepts of “horizontal” and “vertical” joint employment.

“Horizontal” Joint Employment

The DOL has explained that “horizontal” joint employment exists where an employee has employment relationships with two or more related or commonly owned businesses. In assessing horizontal joint employment, the DOL focuses on the relationship between the businesses, i.e., putative joint employers, but not the putative employee’s relationship between and among the putative joint employers. The DOL provides, as an example, a server who works for two different restaurants that are commonly owned.

To determine whether horizontal joint employment exists, the DOL considers the following eight criteria:

  1. Is there common ownership or management with respect to the putative joint employers?
  2. Do the putative joint employers have common officers, directors, executives, or directors?
  3. Do the putative joint employers share control over operations of both businesses?
  4. Are the operations of the putative joint employers’ businesses interrelated?
  5. Do the putative joint employers supervise the same employees?
  6. Do the putative joint employers treat employees as part of a pool available to both businesses?
  7. Do the putative joint employers share clients or customers?
  8. Do the putative joint employers maintain any agreements?

“Vertical” Joint Employment

The DOL has explained that “vertical” joint employment occurs when a worker employed by a third party enters into a work relationship with the putative joint employer. This arrangement commonly involves staffing agencies.

The AI states that in a vertical employment arrangement, the DOL considers the relationship between the putative joint employers and the worker. The DOL will first examine whether the worker’s direct employer, e.g., the staffing agency, is actually an employee of the putative joint employer. If such a relationship exists, then the DOL automatically finds joint employment.

If no such relationship exists, the DOL will then conduct an “economic realities” analysis to determine whether an employee of one business, e.g., the staffing agency, is economically dependent on another business that is the beneficiary of the services performed by the staffing agency’s employee. The AI provides the following economic realities criteria:

  • Directing, Controlling, or Supervising the Work Performed. To the extent that the work performed by the employee is controlled or supervised by the putative joint employer beyond a reasonable degree of contract performance oversight, such control suggests that the employee is economically dependent on the putative joint employer. The potential joint employer’s control can be indirect and still be sufficient to indicate economic dependence by the employee.
  • Controlling Employment Conditions. To the extent that the putative joint employer has the power to hire or fire the employee, modify employment conditions, or determine the rate or method of pay, such control indicates that the employee is economically dependent on the putative joint employer.
  • Permanency and Duration of Relationship. An indefinite, permanent, full-time, or long-term relationship by the employee with the putative joint employer suggests economic dependence.
  • Repetitive Nature of Work. To the extent that the employee’s work for the putative joint employer is repetitive, relatively unskilled, or requires little or no training, such facts indicate that the employee is economically dependent on the putative joint employer.
  • Integral to Business. If the employee’s work is an integral part of the putative joint employer’s business, that fact indicates that the employee is economically dependent on the putative joint employer.
  • Work Performed on Premises. The employee’s performance of the work on premises owned or controlled by the putative joint employer indicates that the employee is economically dependent on the putative joint employer.
  • Performing Administrative Functions Commonly Performed by Employers. To the extent that the putative joint employer performs administrative functions for the employee—such as handling payroll; providing workers’ compensation insurance; providing necessary facilities and safety equipment, housing, or transportation; or supplying tools and materials required for the work—such facts indicate economic dependence by the employee on the putative joint employer.

  1. The U.S. Supreme Court May Review the Enforceability of Class Action Waivers

By Evan J. Spelfogel

One of the most controversial issues in employment law these days involves the position of the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB” or “Board”) that an employer violates the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”) when it requires employees to pursue any dispute they have with their employer on an individual, rather than on a class or collective action, basis with other employees. It is a position that has been adopted by two circuit courts and rejected by three—a conflict that suggests that the issue is ripe for U.S. Supreme Court review.

The NLRB has contended that when an employer requires employees to sign an agreement precluding them from bringing or joining a concerted legal claim regarding wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment, the employer deprives them of rights guaranteed under Section 7 of the NLRA to engage in concerted activities for employees’ mutual aid or protection. That right, the proponents argue, includes the right to join together in class and collective litigation to pursue workplace grievances in court or in arbitration.

In making that argument, the NLRB appears to be neglecting the second part of Section 7 (added to the NLRA by the 1947 Taft-Hartley Amendments), which guarantees to employees an equal right to refrain from engaging in concerted activities for their mutual aid and protection. It would seem to follow that, if they have the right to refrain from engaging in concerted activities, employees could waive their right to participate in class and collective actions.

While the NLRB’s argument appears flawed, the Seventh and Ninth Circuits have agreed with the NLRB that where such agreements are a condition of employment, they deprived employees of their rights to engage in “concerted activities” for their mutual aid and benefit guaranteed to them under Section 7 of the NLRA. These decisions conflict with earlier decisions of the Fifth, Eighth, and, most recently, Second Circuits rejecting the Board’s position.

At least one dissenting judge, Sandra Ikuta of the Ninth Circuit, stated that the majority decision was “breathtaking in its scope and in its error.” She noted that the majority decision was directly contrary to Supreme Court Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”) precedent and that the individual arbitration mandate should have been enforced according to its terms under the FAA. The Ninth Circuit, it should be noted, previously held that an arbitration agreement with a class and collective action waiver did not violate the NLRA when the employee could opt out of the individual arbitration agreement but chose not to do so.

In those jurisdictions covered by the Seventh and Ninth Circuits, class and collective action waivers are likely unenforceable to the extent they are a condition of employment. In jurisdictions covered by the Second, Fifth, and Eighth Circuits, class and collective action waivers would appear to be enforceable. Other circuits have yet to rule on the issue, leaving district courts within those circuits to weigh conflicting arguments on both sides.

The Supreme Court may well step in to resolve the conflict between the circuits on this important issue. Petitions for certiorari have been filed recently in four different cases. The issue before the Supreme Court in all four of these cases is whether the NLRA prohibits an employer from requiring employees to agree to waive their rights to arbitrate class and collective disputes or whether the FAA, which favors arbitration, controls; in short, whether class and collective waivers in arbitration agreements are enforceable. As there is clearly a conflict among the circuits, it would appear that there is a significant chance that the Supreme Court will grant certiorari and resolve this conflict.

As a practical matter, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Scalia’s death earlier this year, his still-unfilled seat, and the upcoming presidential election may play significant roles in resolving this issue if the Supreme Court grants certiorari. As many will recall, it was Justice Scalia who wrote the majority opinions in AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion and American Express v. Italian Colors. In those cases, the Supreme Court upheld class action waivers, albeit in the commercial setting, not in an employment, setting. With Justice Scalia’s seat unfilled and only eight current justices, a four-to-four split at the Supreme Court would leave all of the circuit decisions standing, including both the Seventh and Ninth Circuit decisions in favor of the NLRB’s position, as well as the Second, Fifth, and Eighth Circuit decisions rejecting the NLRB’s position. Depending upon which party wins the upcoming presidential elections, the makeup of the Supreme Court justices (and of the five-member NLRB) may play a significant role in the outcome of this issue.

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For additional information about the issues discussed above, please contact the Epstein Becker Green attorney who regularly handles your legal matters or any of the authors of this Take 5:

Michael S. Kun
Los Angeles
[email protected]

 Michael D. Thompson
[email protected]

Kevin Sullivan
Los Angeles
[email protected]

Jeffrey H. Ruzal
New York
[email protected]

Evan J. Spelfogel
New York
[email protected]