The fluctuating work week (“FWW”) method of computing overtime is very misunderstood and, often, misused by employers. On that note, I read an interesting post in the Epstein Becker Wage and Hour Defense Blog on a recent Southern District of New York case that explained some of the more common issues related to this concept. The case is entitled Thomas v. Bed, Bath & Beyond and addressed several issues that I have long been interested in.

Clock
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As the Epstein post notes, one issue was whether isolated deductions from wages undermine the fixed salary requirement. Another was whether the employee’s hours must fluctuate above/below forty hours for the plan to be valid. Another was whether employees had to understand the nature of the FWW calculations in order for there to be a “mutual understanding” that the lump-sum salary was designed to cover all hours worked for that week at the particular straight time rate.

Under the FWW method, the weekly salary (of non-exempt employees) covers all hours worked at straight time. If more than forty hours are worked, the employee receives additional half-time, based on the number of hours worked in that given week, after engaging in multiplication and division process. The regular rate will fluctuate every week, depending on the number of hours worked in that week. In other words, as the post points out, as the number of hours worked in a week increases, the regular rate goes down.

The plaintiffs alleged that they did not receive a “fixed weekly salary” because there were instances when their salaries were docked due to their absences. Although the Court acknowledged that an employer cannot effect deductions if it places employees on the FWW method of compensation, the Court adopted a utilitarian view and would not scuttle the agreements due to these isolated occurrences. Also, the Company reimbursed the workers for these deductions.

The plaintiffs also contended that their hours never dipped below forty per week, so the FWW compensation method was invalid. The Court turned this argument aside as well. The Court looked at the regulation on point (29 CFR 778.114) and held that the FWW payment method only mandated that the hours varied on a weekly basis and that the hours need not drop below the overtime threshold. This is quite important, doctrinally.

Lastly, and oddly, the plaintiffs claimed that they did not have a clear mutual understanding that they were on a FWW plan. This was odd because the workers had signed a form that set forth the terms of the FWW arrangement. That document also provided sample overtime calculations; they were also given annual notices about their FWW payment arrangement. Significantly, the Court held that the plaintiffs’ subjective lack of understanding of their pay plan was irrelevant, but the proper test was an objective one.

The Takeaway

This case is fascinating and I believe very instructive. I think it provides employers with a roadmap as to how they can and should structure a FWW compensation system for salaried non-exempt workers. As a general rule, most non-exempt employees are paid hourly, but they do not have to be, provided they receive overtime after forty hours. Some non-exempt workers like being “salaried” as that status gives them a white-collar “feel.”

So, good for the employer and, more importantly, employee relations…

The Trump Administration has issued its regulatory agenda, which is a semi-annual statement of the short- and long-term policy plans of government agencies. The DOL is at the forefront of these changes to come. The agency stated that it will revise the definition of “regular rate,” the number that forms the basis for overtime computations this coming September.

A former lobbyist for the Chamber of Commerce applauded the DOL proposed initiative on the regular rate and called it “huge.” The Fair Labor Standards Act mandates that employers calculate the regular rate for overtime purposes and there are many scenarios in which bonuses and other incentives are required to be included when determining what the regular rate is for a particular week. If these bonuses and other incentives did not need to be included, that would be a watershed development in how overtime is calculated and would reduce employer overtime liability significantly.

U.S. Department of Labor headquarters
By AgnosticPreachersKid (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
I have handled FLSA class actions where a client, through inadvertence, did not include small bonus amounts for employees and the end result was a major class action that we eventually settled but it was a real problem. The point is that many employers, good faith, well-intentioned employers, are simply unaware of these rules though they are certainly not trying to “stiff” their employees.

Another proposal in the agenda, rather controversial, is to expand apprenticeship and job opportunities minors under eighteen by softening the rules that forbid minors from working in so-called “hazardous” occupations or working around machinery that is prohibited. One advocate for workers agreed with the goal of increasing work chances for young people but urged the agency “to proceed with caution.” The advocate stated that “the DOL has a responsibility to safeguard the health and well-being of all workers, especially children.”

The Takeaway

The regular rate revision or change excites me from an “intellectual” side and, more germanely, from a practitioner’s perspective. That entire issue is very misunderstood by the employer community and can often lead to major liability. On a weekly basis, the tiny amounts generated from an employer’s failure to include bonus monies is negligible. However, when those tiny amounts of money are combined for a class of employees over two (or three) years, then the liability may become astronomical.

Maybe this new proposal is the right fix…

I blog a lot about working time cases because these are the issues can sneak up on an employer, even the most well intentioned and good faith employer. Travel time is one of these murky, arcane kind of activities that go unnoticed by companies until, often, a lawsuit is filed. Another example emerges. A group of workers who constructed and maintained cellphone towers in several States gave been granted conditional certification in a FLSA collective action based on an alleged failure to pay for travel time. The case is entitled Lichy et al. v. Centerline Communications LLC, and was filed in federal court in the District of Massachusetts.

Silhouette of a cell phone tower shot against the setting sun.The judge certified a class of tower technicians and foremen. These workers can now opt into the lawsuit, which is based on the theory that the company should have compensated them for hours they spent driving company vehicles to work, over supposedly vast distances. The inclusion of foremen in the class, e.g. supervisory personnel, is quite interesting, but the Court found their duties were very similar to the rank-and-file workers and the foremen were working under the identical travel time policy.

The plaintiffs’ lawyer, naturally, applauded the decision, stating “first, the court recognized that slight differences among members of the class do not preclude conditional certification where all class members are subject to the same policy regarding payment of wages  Second, the court explicitly recognized that plaintiffs need not submit affidavits in support of their motion for conditional certification in order to prevail.”

Five tower technicians/lineworkers filed the suit. Their job duties included climbing cell towers, many times in distant locations and installing antennae, radios and cables. The Company mandated that the workers drive together to these job sites. The men were paid their regular hourly rates for the travel time between a meeting point and the job site. However, the Company failed to pay for the travel time returning to the central meeting place unless there were traffic delays or the job location was more than 130 miles from the regional workshop, according to the allegations in the case. The workers seek payment for the time driving back in Company vehicles to the central location. The Company contends that the FLSA does not mandate payment for travel time.

The Takeaway

I wonder why the company would not pay for the travel time back to the meeting place or regional office when the Company did pay for the travel time from the meeting place to the job site. That initial agreement to pay seems to undermine the defense that travel time is non-compensable. Home to work travel time is non-compensable, but when workers must first report to a central location, leave from there to the first job site and travel back to that central location, the travel time then does become compensable.

I bet this case settles…

The controversy over whether employees must arbitrate wage claims continues with full force. A federal judge has just sent to arbitration a claim by an employee that the Company violated the Fair Labor Standards Act by not paying him overtime pay. The Court found that the parties had “clearly and unmistakably” agreed that an arbitrator should decide whether the allegations are arbitrable. The case is entitled Smith v. Kellogg Co. et al., and was filed in federal court in the District of Nevada.

Arbitration
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The district judge granted a motion to compel arbitration. The Court found that the retail sales representative signed an employment agreement that contained a mandatory arbitration clause under the Judicial Arbitration Mediation Services rules, which leave the determination of arbitrability to the arbitrator.

The judge noted several cases involving the issue of whether the sophistication of the parties matters in deciding whether a delegation of arbitrability is clear and unmistakable. The judge, however, referred to language in another decision holding that the parties do not need to be sophisticated to conclude that the incorporation of arbitrator rules “constitutes clear and unmistakable evidence of the parties’ intent” to delegate the decision about arbitrability.” As the Court aptly noted, “… the requisite intent to delegate is present in the continued employment/incentive agreement in the incorporation of the JAMS rules, which delegate the determination of arbitrability to the arbitrator.”

The judge also noted that the Agreement contained a clause telling the employee to consult with an attorney. The document also gave at least 21 days to consider the Agreement prior to signing it and there was, very generously, a seven-day grace period to revoke the decision made previously to agree to the arbitration procedure. The judge concluded that although “ Smith has raised a slight inference of procedural unconscionability [he} has not made a showing of substantive unconscionability as to the delegation provision. Therefore, the delegation provision is enforceable and I grant the motion to compel arbitration.”

The Takeaway

An arbitration provision such as this one is an escape mechanism for the employer in an overtime or FLSA context. It must be drafted properly, with all the procedural safeguards necessary and as may need to vary from state to state but it can preclude federal litigation.

Which is always a much more expensive proposition.

Accurate records are extremely important for employers. The employer must record the employees’ start time, when they took lunch, and when they leave at the end of the day.  That is so employees can be properly paid (for overtime as well) and, significantly, it is for the employer’s protection so workers cannot inflate claims of working hours. The one thing employers must never do is to alter, edit or change those records, especially for any ulterior reason.

Female hotel housekeeping worker with linens and cartAn Orlando hotel found this out the hard way. The hotel has been ordered to pay in excess of $400,000 in back wages and penalties after the U.S. Department of Labor concluded that the Company had, on numerous occasions, altered payroll records to avoid paying overtime. The agency found that the Sheraton Vistana Resort did not accurately record all work hours performed by the employees. The Company assessed $372,183 in back wages for 275 employees and more than $40,000 in penalties for repeat violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act.

The USDOL District Director stated that this resolution “puts these wages into the hands of those who earned them, and demonstrates how the Department of Labor’s enforcement protects workers and levels the playing field for law-abiding employers.” The investigation showed that supervisors directed employees to sign documents authorizing the Company to edit the times employees punched in and out. The supervisors then altered time records to indicate that employees did not work through their lunch breaks, notwithstanding that they did so.

The Company maintained that it has taken steps to ensure future compliance. A spokesperson stated that, “Sheraton Vistana Resort has agreed to pay some housekeeping associates for overtime that may not have been fully paid for a period of two years.  Current procedures prevent any similar underpayments to associates.”

The Takeaway

Keeping accurate records is essential, as it shows the hours employees worked and protects the employer in the sense that employees cannot inflate the hours they worked because the records show otherwise.  This is especially so if the employer directs employees to self-certify that the hours worked are accurate.  This lovely reasoning goes out the window if the employer is actively directing employees not to report hours, to work off-the-clock, or, as here, to “authorize” their supervisors to change their working hours.

A big no-no….

I have blogged many times about the rash of intern cases that have popped up over the last few years. Now maybe there will be a consistent, uniform test for determining whether interns are really statutory “employees.” The US Department of Labor has endorsed such a test. The agency is approving the so-called “primary beneficiary” standard.

Students/interns sitting at a table with laptops talking
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The agency has endorsed a seven-part test for determining intern status. This was set forth in the Second Circuit decision in the 2015 ruling in Glatt v. Fox Searchlight Pictures Inc. That test analyzes the “economic reality” of interns’ relationship with the putative employer to ascertain who is the primary beneficiary of the relationship. This test has been applied in a number of cases and industries of industries, where courts have found that, as the primary beneficiaries of these internships, the individuals are not employees under the FLSA and therefore cannot file claims for misclassification and wage violations.

The agency noted that four federal appellate courts have rejected the six-part DOL test set forth almost a decade ago. The agency issued a statement asserting that the “Department of Labor today clarified that going forward, the department will conform to these appellate court rulings by using the same ‘primary beneficiary’ test that these courts use to determine whether interns are employees under the FLSA. The Wage and Hour Division will update its enforcement policies to align with recent case law, eliminate unnecessary confusion among the regulated community, and provide the division’s investigators with increased flexibility to holistically analyze internships on a case-by-case basis.”

Under the “old” test, an intern is an employee unless all of the six factors were satisfied. These included whether the intern displaced a regular employee and whether the employer derived any “immediate advantage” from the intern’s work. The updated test now restates the seven non-exhaustive factors that constituted the Glatt test. Those include: 1) whether there’ exists a clear understanding that no expectation of compensation exists; 2) whether interns receive training similar to what they would receive in an educational environment; and, 3) to what extent the internship is tied to a formal education program. The agency specifically noted that the primary beneficiary standard is “flexible,” and that determinations on intern-employee status hinge upon the unique circumstances of each case.

The Takeaway

I believe this is a better, fairer, more realistic test. Is it, as I postulated, “definitive guidance?”We will see…

I have blogged about and have long been concerned about working time issues and what constitutes compensable work hours. One of the thorniest of these issues is on-call time and when, if at all, on-call hours become working time. A recent case throws light on this issue, as a Court has held that an Admissions Director for a medical rehabilitation center may be eligible for overtime when she had to work more than forty hours in a week. The case is entitled Butler v. Ciena Health Care Mgt., Inc. and was filed in federal court in the Eastern District of Michigan.

Female doctor in white uniform writing on clipboard Although her title was “Director,” the employee may not have been an exempt employee, thereby making hours worked above forty to be overtime/compensable hours. The Court found that the employee might not have exercised independent judgment in the performance of her job. She “merely” followed admission guidelines and collected information that her boss then utilized to determine whether to admit a particular patient. In exemption issues, it is the duties performed, not the job title or the position description, that determines exempt status and whether someone is eligible for overtime.

The Court denied the defendant’s summary judgment motion and ordered a trial to determine if the employee was exempt. The Court, however, ruled that the worker was not entitled to compensation for the round-the-clock periods when she was required to be on call. The employee was on call twenty-four hours per day Monday-Friday and every other weekend. Workers will get paid for these on-call hours if they are impeded in the pursuit of their personal activities and personal pursuits.

This employee was home when she was on call and could not demonstrate that simply being in an on-call status had any “onerous impact” on her personal activities. The Court noted that the fact that a fraction of patient referrals came during non-work hours showed the Court that these interruptions were not burdensome.

The Takeaway

The great danger in a case like this is that if the employee is deemed non-exempt, so that overtime hours “matter,” the employer might face significant liability. The cure is to conduct an internal audit of all salaried positions, i.e. those normally classified as exempt and make pure up-and-down calls about exempt status.

Especially with the administrative exemption (as herein)…

I read an interesting post by Daniel Schwartz in the Connecticut Employment Law Blog. It concerned a recent Second Circuit decision that bodes well for employers in the never-ending fight against wage-hour class actions. The case is entitled Rodriguez-Depena v. Parts Authority, Inc. et al. and issued from the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

Auto parts store shelvesThe Court therein ruled that the arbitration clause set forth in the employment agreement precluded the federal action.  Dan noted that the “clear logic” of the decision will be hard to overlook and I believe he is quite right. The Court relied upon an earlier decision that held that age discrimination claims could not be brought in court if a valid arbitration policy was in place.

The Court also examined the issue of whether the required judicial oversight of FLSA settlements would be a bar to arbitration of these claims. The Court held that it did not, as the guarantee of the fairness of a settlement of a claim filed in court did not mean that this right provided an ironclad right to file suit in court.

Dan notes that this “federal endorsement of arbitration provisions” will allow employers to adopt these provisions and provide themselves with another defense. It also provides yet another stratagem to be utilized in the early stages of a FLSA class action case.

The Takeaway

Maybe employers should consider utilizing such mandatory arbitration provisions. Arbitration is a much cheaper and faster litigation mechanism. I am a big advocate of taking the easiest way out of a class action federal court FLSA case and these kinds of provisions may be another weapon in that early dismissal arsenal.

Well done, Dan…

A class of equipment operators and trainees has asked a federal court to approve a $1.35 million settlement of their FLSA class action lawsuit alleging the Company did not fairly pay them their wages and used a gimmick to avoid doing so.  The case is entitled Elliott v. Schlumberger Technology Corp. et al., and was filed in federal court in the District of North Dakota.

The plaintiffs alleged that the Company violated the law by paying them under the “fluctuating workweek” method.   Interestingly (or maybe not so much), the settlement talks took place after U.S. District Judge Ralph R. Erickson granted the Company’s motion to decertify the class.   The Judge ruled that there was insufficient evidence to show that the workers were similarly situated. There are 138 people in the class.

The plaintiffs alleged that the Company paid equipment operators and trainees by the fluctuating-workweek (FWW) method.  That method allows employers to pay workers overtime at a half-time, as opposed to time and one-half, but certain conditions must be met.  The workers claimed that in order to validly use this method, the employees must be paid on a fixed salary, which they were not.

The Court had conditionally certified a collective class of equipment operators, trainees and other similar employees who were employed at the Company plant in Williston, North Dakota, and to whom the Company applied the fluctuating workweek method for at least one week during the three years preceding the lawsuit.

The Takeaway

This case presents a valuable lesson.  Attempted use of the FWW method of payment must have the employees receiving a fixed salary and an agreement, in advance of the work, that the employees understand what the payment arrangements and overtime protocols are going to be.  This allows the employer to pay half time for overtime instead of time and one-half.  Without these two requirements being met, any attempt to use the FWW method is doomed to failure.  Put differently, the FWW method can be the employer’s best friend, if done right.

If not, it is the employer’s worst enemy…

I always look for the easiest way out of a FLSA lawsuit. I use the word “easiest” in the most generic sense, as no magic bullet defense is truly easy. However, there are times when you catch lightning in a bottle, i.e. the jurisdictional defense. In a recent case, the Company was able to use this defense/shield to dismiss a FLSA overtime suit. The case is entitled Zheng v. Best Food In Town, LLC et al and was filed in federal court in the District of New Jersey. The plaintiff alleged violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) and the New Jersey Wage and Hour Law (“NJWHL”).

Cooks in restaurant kitchenThe plaintiff alleged that he was a salaried employee and worked as a kitchen helper for Defendants with a fixed lump sum per month compensation. His duties included washing and cutting vegetables, frying and cooking rice, preparing meat, and cleaning. He separated employment in May 2015. The plaintiff alleged that his employer engaged in a widespread pattern and practice of not paying a class of employees proper minimum wage and overtime compensation.

The Court noted that to sustain a suit under the FLSA, an employee must work for an enterprise or business that “has employees engaged in commerce or in the production of goods for commerce, or that has employees handling, selling, or otherwise working on goods or materials that have been moved in or produced for commerce by any person.” 29 U.S.C. § 203(s)(1)(a). This enterprise must have annual gross sales or business “not less than $500,000.” Id.

On this point, the Company submitted individual and corporate tax returns to support the argument that the business did not reach this threshold. These documents included tax returns from 2013, 2014, and 2015; Defendants’ gross corporate annual revenue ranged from $385,420 to $428,856. The plaintiff countered by asserting that these income tax records did not account for all of Best Food In Town’s sales. The Court observed that, thus, the Plaintiff’s only evidence to rebut these documents was “an assertion of tax fraud.”

The Court concluded that this lack of evidence was fatal. In a summary judgment proceeding, the non-moving party must make some showing of evidence from which a reasonable jury might return a verdict in his favor. All the Plaintiff did here was make an assertion. That did not and could not carry the day. Thus, the Court ruled that the FLSA did not apply to the Company and dismissed the Complaint.

The Takeaway

How quick and effective! No jurisdiction because the dollar threshold was not met and the case is dismissed, early on. This will certainly not work in every case, but the moral of the story remains the same. Defense counsel should explore the possibility of a sure-fire, quick, easy way out. If you don’t look, you don’t find.

Always look…