There have been many investigations of gas stations by the US Department of Labor. Like other retail industries, these businesses sometimes work their employees long hours for a set salary or lump sum of money. The problem is that in these scenarios, the employer is likely not paying proper overtime.

Gas stationIt has happened again, in New Jersey. A chain of six southern New Jersey gas stations will pay twenty-seven (27) workers almost $500,000 in back pay and liquidated damages in an audit emanating from a USDOL investigation into violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act,

The latest violator, R & R Store Inc., operating as USA Gas, had paid these workers a flat monthly salary ranging from $2,200-2,400; the employees worked approximately seventy (70) hours per week, but were not paid overtime. A DOL spokeswoman stated that “not paying employees the wages they’ve earned seriously impacts low-wage employees, such as gas station attendants, causing them hardships as they try to support themselves and their families.”

Significantly, the agency also assessed liquidated damages, which doubled the wages due, for an aggregate total of $463,453.52.  Liquidated damages are often now the rule, even in administrative investigations and audits. Interestingly, gas stations in New Jersey and Oregon are the only states that prevent motorists from pumping their own gas, so they need to employ workers, many of them full-time, to pump the gas and provide customer assistance and services.

In sum, the government took a hard line. Its spokesperson stated that the “U.S. Department of Labor remains focused on New Jersey’s gas stations to determine if FLSA violations exist. If violations are found, we will vigorously pursue corrective action to ensure accountability, deter future violations and prevent violators from gaining a competitive advantage.”

The Takeaway

These wage hour problems/issues are rampant in this industry (and in many other retail industries). Employees are paid a lump sum of cash for hours far exceeding the statutory threshold for overtime, i.e. 40 but they never receive appropriate time and one-half overtime. There are ways, however, legal ways, to build in the overtime to employee lump sums (whether cash or otherwise). The employer’s labor costs need not rise in this scenario and, most importantly, the DOL problems go away and never come back.

It can happen…

The joint employer possibility is a dangerous one for employers, as two related (or semi-related) entities may be held liable for overtime monies if the hours worked by employees at the two (or more) entities exceed 40. Now, Republicans in the House of Representatives have introduced a bill to narrow the definition of joint employment under federal wage-hour and labor law. This would provide businesses clear and bright lines for how they structure deals with contractors, but employee advocates take the opposite view and fear that this act would allow companies that outsource labor to avoid liability for workplace violations.

U.S. Capitol Building
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The proposed legislation, entitled the Save Local Business Act (introduced by Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Alabama) would amend the National Labor Relations Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act to specify that a business may be branded as a joint employer only if it exercises direct, actual and immediate “significant control” over the essential terms and conditions of certain workers. These essential terms and conditions include hiring and firing/discipline, setting of employee rates of pay and benefits, daily supervision of employees, assignment of individual work schedules and assignment of jobs and job duties.

The proposed standard is stricter (i.e. more pro-employer) than the concepts outlined for joint employment in the controversial NLRB decision in Browning-Ferris Industries of California. The proposed law could result in some finality, in that it will place one body of guiding principles in place under both the NLRA and FLSA so that employers will gain some consistency. One practitioner has stated that, “it provides everybody with a clear definition for who will be liable under both laws.”

A pro-employee advocate from the National Employment Law Project stated that this statute could have serious and adverse effects on lower paid workers, who work, for example, in agriculture or janitorial services. The advocate warned that if the bill becomes law, it would be easier for businesses to place buffers between themselves and their workers, e.g. temporary agencies, staffing service providers, which would facilitate the avoidance of liability. Another employee advocate expressed a dimmer, more radical view, stating that the law would “undermine the concept of joint employment” and “set a high threshold to hold an employer who contracts or outsources work” liable for workplace law violations.

The Takeaway

In FLSA cases involving joint employment, there is varying law between federal circuits, but as regards labor law, the NLRB’s interpretation of the statute is given broad deference by courts on joint employment issues. If, however, Congress adopts a specific test, that test will then likely be given considerable deference by courts in future cases. Long story short—this bill is geared towards a considerable narrowing of the definition of joint employment.

At last!

I have blogged often on these new OT regulations and now it seems the game is continuing, with opposition (not unexpected) from the current administration. The USDOL has released its request for information (RFI) on the revision of the white-collar overtime exemption rules. This has engendered, and will continue to engender, a great deal of controversy. The Obama administration-authored changes to the rules would double the salary level for workers to qualify as overtime-exempt.

The request for information requests stakeholder input on the salary test for exemption under the Fair Labor Standards Act. The questions that the DOL has posed shows that the agency is weighing many options for the rule.  These include setting the salary threshold differently depending on geographical area or possibly eliminating any salary test at all and focusing only on employee job duties to determine if a white-collar exemption (executive, administrative, professional) applied.

U.S. Department of Labor headquarters
By AgnosticPreachersKid (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Alfred Robinson, a former WHD Administrator, and someone likely to know, has stated that. “I’ve seen offices that maybe pushed liquidated damages or things of that nature beforehand are not so adamant about it this year.”  He added that, “I read the tea leaves as suggesting that hopefully some reason is coming into some of the enforcement practices.”

In November 2016, an employer group sought and secured a nationwide injunction from a federal court in Texas against the proposed overtime rule.  The new Secretary of Labor has indicated that the new salary level should be set somewhere between the old level and the proposed one (approximately $47,000 per year), but, significantly, the RFI does not suggest the level where it should be set.  The DOL states that “concerns expressed by various stakeholders after publication of the 2016 final rule that the salary level would adversely impact low-wage regions and industries have further shown that additional rulemaking is appropriate.”

The exemption test is now tri-partite—employees must be salaried, must earn a certain minimum salary and must perform certain duties.  The exemption regulations are updated periodically; the last time was in 2004 when the salary level was raised from $250 per week to $455 per week and some changes were made to the duties components of the so-called white-collar exemptions.  The current proposal would not touch the duties tests but would raise the salary level to $913 per week.

The RFI does not trigger the formal rulemaking process that will rescind or modify the proposed (and currently enjoined rule) but the purpose is to secure data and feedback on an issue of concern. Significantly, the agency is on record as stating that it will not seek to revise the rule unless the Fifth Circuit affirms the DOL’s ability and right to establish a salary test.

The Takeaway

I find most interesting the concept that only duties should determine whether an employee is exempt or not.  That might make it easier for employers to maintain lower level supervisors as exempt, as for example, in the retail industry.  Maybe employers would like even better the reverse—if the employee makes a certain amount of salary, he/she is, by definition, exempt.

That seems simpler…

No industry is immune to FLSA collective actions and the energy industry is seeing a significant uptick in these actions. In this regard, a class of workers employed by an oil field services company has just agreed to a $2.1 million deal to settle a Fair Labor Standards Act collective action alleging that the company did not pay them proper overtime wages. The case is entitled Meals v. Keane Frac GP LLC et al., and was filed in federal court in the Western District of Pennsylvania.

Oil pump jack and oil tank silhouette
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The employer advised the Court that a settlement had been reached with a class of “frac supervisor I’s” to settle a FLSA collective action, seeking overtime, on a misclassification theory. The agreement recited that both counsel believed the settlement was in the best interests of all the parties, given the costs to be incurred, the risks inherent in litigation, as well as the delays, when placed up against the benefits of the settlement.

The defendant, however, made sure to secure non-admissions language. The papers stated that the “defendant denies and continues to deny all of plaintiff’s allegations in the action. Defendant enters into this agreement expressly disavowing any fault, liability and/or wrongdoing.”

Importantly, there had been a grant of conditional certification in June to a class of current and former “frac supervisor I’s” and other like employees who were employed by the Company in the last three years. The plaintiffs alleged that these alleged supervisors performed primarily manual work, which precluded the application of the exemption. The plaintiffs also claimed that the Company has a policy of deliberately misclassifying these supervisors to save overtime costs (even though they received bonuses). The Complaint alleged that all of these supervisors were similarly situated because they shared common job duties, were all classified as exempt and all performed uncompensated work.

The Takeaway

This was the right move by the employer. Exemption cases are always tough to win—often, the entire class is held to be exempt, or, heaven forbid, non-exempt, especially if common policies apply to the affected workers. The issue now becomes whether to re-classify these workers, i.e. pay them hourly, or enhance their duties so they “evolve” into exempt employees.

A lot easier to re-classify.  A lot less (future) worry and aggravation…

I have blogged on this topic many times but I never tire of it. What is the way to defeat a class action? The magic bullet? The answer? Too much individual scrutiny is needed! Another Judge has proven me right on this. A federal judge has denied a motion to certify a class of distributors who distributed products for a bakery with brands such as Wonder Bread and Nature’s Own. The drivers alleged that they were misclassified as independent contractors and should have been overtime-eligible employees. The case is entitled Soares et al. v. Flowers Foods Inc. et al. and was filed in federal court in the Northern District of California.

Bakery
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The judge acknowledged that there were common questions as to the drivers’ substantive claims. However, it was the varying nature of their businesses, such as differences in operations, whether they hired their own “employees” and whether they did business with other entities that would have necessitated the individual evaluation(s). The Judge noted that “individualized issues over how to determine which distributors personally serviced their routes and whether the distributors operated distinct businesses prevents common questions of fact or law from predominating, and class wide treatment is not superior to individual actions.”

The class members bought exclusive rights to sell products in designated geographic territories and were responsible for delivering, displaying and selling the products in their chosen territories. The agreements designated the distributor as “an independent contractor with the resources, expertise and capability to act as a distributor.” The documents also specifically stated that the distributors would not be subject to Company control “as to the specific details or manner” of their business. In October 2015, they filed suit alleging that the Company misclassified them as independent contractors.

The Judge noted that although the class was confined to distributors who “personally serviced” their routes, the sorting out of those distributors that actually did that and when they did that “cannot be answered in one fell swoop.” The Court indicated that some distributors did engage their own employees who performed the routes some of the time and neither party could show through evidence, which distributors “personally serviced” their routes and which did not or how many days they did or did not personally service the routes.

The Court stated that “there would need to be mini-trials into these distributors’ recollections of how often they personally serviced their routes, and when and how often, if at all, they provided distribution services for other companies. Thus, some distributors might be found to operate businesses distinct from Flowers’ operation, while for others this factor would weigh in favor of an employment relationship, and thus this factor is not subject to common proof.”

The Takeaway

This is the object lesson for employer-defendants. I believe these independent contractor cases are peculiarly susceptible to these defenses. The employer must always look at and focus upon the “individual scrutiny” defense because it could be a single stroke method of making the whole thing go away.

The attorneys for the USDOL advised the federal Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals that the agency does intend to revise the currently pending changes to the overtime regulations.  The lawyers also requested that the Court approve of the agency’s right to use salary levels to determine exemption status.  The case is entitled Nevada et al v. USDOL and is being heard in the Fifth Circuit.

The lawyers requested “that this Court not address the validity of the specific salary level set by the 2016 final rule ($913 per week), which the Department intends to revisit through new rulemaking.” In lieu of such a holding, the DOL wants the Court to acknowledge that the USDOL possesses the authority to establish a salary minimum; if a salary is less than that amount, the employees would be automatically entitled to overtime for actual hours worked exceeding forty (40).

U.S. Secretary of Labor Alex Acosta
Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta

A federal district court Judge stayed the rule last year.  The lower court found that the agency emphasized salary levels too much, rather than the job duties performed, in determining exempt status under the proposed revision.  The new Secretary of Labor, Alexander Acosta, stated during his confirmation hearing that this decision seemed to question whether the agency had the power to set a salary threshold.

The DOL has submitted a request for information on the overtime rule to the Office of Management and Budget.  This action suggests that the DOL is prepared to reconsider the pending regulation.  Mr. Acosta hinted that he could envision the current $24,000 salary threshold rising to the low $30,000 range.  The rule, as currently constituted, is estimated to make another four million people eligible for overtime.

The Takeaway

This is an interesting development.  Perhaps the Court will be guided by the government’s arguments and toss this hot potato back to the agency to establish a new (and more business friendly) salary threshold.

*Photo credit: By US Department of Labor (L-17-05-01-C-AlexanderAcosta-023-E) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I blogged about this off-the-beaten-path case a short time ago. Wow, whoever thought the courts would work this fast? A federal judge dismissed a proposed FLSA collective action against Fluor Corp. filed by contractors who alleged that the Company did not pay them overtime based upon a contract performed in Afghanistan. The Court held that the country’s labor laws were inapplicable to foreign citizens who did not have work permits. The case is entitled Allen et al. v. Fluor Corp., and was filed in federal court in the Northern District of Texas.

Silhouette of U.S. soldier
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The contractors had alleged that they were owed more than $5 million dollars in back-due overtime, as they worked twelve hours per day, seven days per week. They claimed this violated the Afghanistan Labor Code. The federal Judge, however, agreed with the Company that the Labor Code did not apply to workers who may have registered with the nation’s Investment Support Agency but were not compelled to apply for work permits in order to provide services. These contractors were providing housing, performing construction work and ensuring that, fuel, food and laundry services were provided for the soldiers.

The Court stated that “based on the evidence of foreign law submitted by the parties, including expert declarations, the court concludes that the Afghanistan Labor Code does not apply to plaintiffs. The code, by its terms, applies to foreign citizens who have obtained or will later obtain work permits, and not to other foreign citizens.”

Pursuant to the Bilateral Security Agreement between the U.S. and Afghanistan, military contractors must register with the Afghan Investment Support Agency, but need not apply for work permits. The Company contended that the requirement provided an exception for American contractors from the requirement to secure permits and, therefore, from the labor law that applies only to foreigners who have secured or will secure such permits. The Judge would also not allow the plaintiffs to amend their Complaint, as the fundamental defects in it could not be cured by re-pleading.

The Takeaway

An outlier kind of case with perhaps little relevance to the average employer, here in “the States.” It does, however, show that wage-hour situations, e.g. overtime class action suits, can arise in any number of scenarios or contexts and creative lawyers need to be able to adapt defenses to the tools, or body of law, at hand.

It is difficult to defend a class action based on exemption, which explains why many of these cases (as herein) settle. This is because the employer-defendant is (usually) going to be completely right, or totally wrong. Either the class of workers (especially if the exemption at issue is professional or administrative) will meet the regulatory tests or they will fall short. That is the reason these cases often settle, because the employer does not want to test its theory at an expensive trial.

Artist at computer
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Case in point. A judge in California just gave final approval to a 1.5 million settlement to resolve class action allegations that a group of senior artists for a video game giant company were wrongly classified. The case is entitled Lee et al. v. Activision Blizzard Inc. et al., and was filed in Superior Court of the State of California, County of Los Angeles.

The Judge approved a settlement in this case, more than two years after the named plaintiff, John Lee, filed a suit alleging that the Company had misclassified the senior artists as exempt, salaried employees to avoid paying overtime. The Court approved the sum of $1.5 million for the class of 128 artists, as well as legal fees of $500,000.

The lawyer for the plaintiffs claimed they had a strong case on the classification issue. The Company maintained that the senior artists were properly classified and it had a basis for potentially wiping out all damages in the case. The Company had garnered several Affidavits from the class members themselves who asserted that they were properly classified. The Company asserted in the motion that “given that the makeup of the 128 member putative class consisted of approximately 80 percent individuals, who continue to be employed by the defendant, it was possible that at trial, any if not all of the currently employed class members might testify that they were properly classified during the class period or that they worked no overtime hours at all.”

The Takeaway

The exemptions at issue were the professional and possibly the administrative. The Company might have been well advised to settle, however, because the professional exemption virtually mandates a long, prolonged course of study in a field recognized as “professional.” The administrative exemption, as I have preached many times, is the most difficult of the white collar exemptions to defend, especially on the issue of discretion vs skills and experience, which may well have been the stumbling block in this case for the Employer.

The President has not yet nominated an Administrator for the DOL Wage and Hour Division and the new Secretary of Labor, Alexander Acosta, has not named a political adviser to work with the Wage and Hour Division’s careerists. Thus, without new policy guidance, DOL field investigators seem to be enforcing minimum wage and overtime laws by adhering to and following policies that existed before January 20, 2017.

With that said, there are signs that some local DOL offices may be re-thinking their attitude toward businesses on their own, with their thinking being that the DOL will adopt, as an official stance, a more business-friendly enforcement policy. For example, there are signs that investigators are not keying in on joint employer relationships and may not be so quick to assess double damages (liquidated damages) on wage assessments made.

U.S. Department of Labor headquarters
By AgnosticPreachersKid (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Alfred Robinson, a former WHD Administrator, and someone likely to know, has stated that. “I’ve seen offices that maybe pushed liquidated damages or things of that nature beforehand are not so adamant about it this year.”  He added that, “I read the tea leaves as suggesting that hopefully some reason is coming into some of the enforcement practices.”

The agency has more than 1,000 investigators and the lack of leadership in the “main office” could make it harder for the agency to speak in a unified manner.  A long time ex-WHD official observed “until there’s political leadership in place below the Secretary, I think we’re going to see wage-and-hour on automatic pilot, and one of the consequences of that is that some of the district offices are left to their own devices.”

Some lawyers believe that the DOL is taking a more neutral enforcement stance thus far. In contrast, there are reports that some investigators are becoming more aggressive, as they set short time frames for the production of documents as a component of an investigation.

Under President Obama, the DOL significantly increased the number and kinds of cases on which it would assess liquidated damages. This is expected to slow down, as it is a big hammer for the agency, especially in an administrative context. As far as guidance issuing, the closest thing to the implementation of policies was the withdrawal of the two Administrator Interpretations on independent contractor status and what constitutes a joint employer relationship.

The Takeaway

 I expected the DOL to be more business friendly under this Administration, but if the agency does not get organized, there will be no clear direction. Maybe that is a good thing for the employer-defendant world.

Maybe not…

The Obama DOL had issued two so-called “white papers” one on independent contractor status (Administrator Interpretation No 2015-1).and the other on joint employer status (Administrator Interpretation No. 2016-1). These documents outlined the agency’s position on these two crucial issues and not surprisingly, took a very pro-employee perspective. Well now, in the stroke of a pen (or two pens), those Interpretations have been completely rescinded.

U.S. Secretary of Labor Alex Acosta
By US Department of Labor [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The Secretary of Labor, Alex Acosta, stated that the agency would withdraw these Interpretations. In a statement, the agency asserted that the rescission of these documents “does not change employers’ legal responsibilities” under the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act, with the agency saying it “will continue to fully and fairly enforce all laws within its jurisdiction.”

The Takeaway

I am not convinced that these withdrawals will matter at all. The Interpretations were drawn from precedent — lots of precedent — on both of these issues. That precedent will not go away. The tenets enunciated in the documents reflect, in my view, the positions that federal courts have been taking for the last several years.

Unless DOL field offices are given specific, explicit guidance from “above” to totally change their view on these issues, which is likely not to happen, field investigators and District Directors in the numerous field offices will continue to apply the principles applicable to these issues in the same, liberal, pro-employee manner which they have been doing for many years now.

So, as Sonny and Cher sang many years ago, “the beat goes on.”