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…

It is well-established that short rest breaks, so-called coffee breaks, are compensable under the Fair Labor Standards Act. In a variation on this age-old theme, in a unique set of circumstances, the Third Circuit has affirmed that employers must pay for breaks of up to twenty (20) minutes. In this case, the Company did not pay sales workers who logged off of their computers for more than a minute and a half. The case is entitled U.S. Department of Labor v. American Future Systems Inc. et al., and issued from the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.

Cup of coffee sitting on tableThe Court held that the FLSA mandates that employers compensate employees for all rest breaks of twenty minutes or less. The Court rejected the Company’s argument that courts should assess the compensability of break times depending on whether the particular break was intended to benefit the employer or the employee. The Company argued that if the break benefited the employee, then no compensation would be due.

The Court disagreed, concluding that this would be “contrary to the regulatory scheme and case law,” and would be “burdensome and unworkable.” The Court stated “employers would have to analyze each break every employee takes to determine whether it primarily benefited the employee or employer. This would not only be ‘an undesirable regulatory intrusion in the workplace with the potential to seriously disrupt many employer-employee relationships, but it would also be difficult, if not impossible, to implement in all workplace settings.”

The workers were paid an hourly wage and were given bonuses based on sales per hour when they were logged onto their computers. Before 2009, the Company’s policy was to give workers two 15-minute breaks each day. It then changed the policy to cut out paid breaks but employees were able to log off of their computers at any time, but the Company only paid them for the time that they were logged on. The Company denominated this as “flex time.” The Company only paid workers if they were logged off for less than 90 seconds, including time spent on bathroom or coffee breaks.

The Third Circuit held that this violated the spirit of the FLSA. Employees had to choose between going to the bathroom or getting paid “unless the employee can sprint from computer to bathroom, relieve him or herself while there, and then sprint back to his or her computer in less than 90 seconds.”

The Takeaway

This is an employee friendly decision but it makes sense if one is strictly analyzing the FLSA, both plain language and intent. The statute protects employees from having their wages withheld when they take short breaks to visit the bathroom, stretch their legs, get a cup of coffee, or simply clear their head after a difficult stretch of work. The Court is really looking towards the general well-being of the employees.

Probably a good thing…

In the movie “Grease,” there is a song entitled “Beauty School Dropout,” sung by Frankie Avalon. Well, in a legal version of that number, the Seventh Circuit has affirmed that beauty school students have, sort of, dropped out of the FLSA as they are not considered employees. The case is entitled Hollins v. Regency Corp., and issued from the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

Hairdresser cutting young woman's hairThe decision affirmed a lower court decision, holding that a cosmetology student who worked at the beauty school’s salon was not an employee of the school. This employer, a cosmetology school, requires that students complete 1,500 hours of classroom and hands-on work. They do this by working in the school’s salon; the customers pay discounted prices. Significantly, the students are not paid, but they do receive credit of hours towards their license as well as academic credit.

The named plaintiff alleged that her hours were compensable under the FLSA and she brought a collective action; the lower court denied the motion for conditional class certification as moot, as the court granted the employer’s motion for summary judgment on the “employee” issue.

The Seventh Circuit looked at the “primary beneficiary” test and determined that under those standards, the workers were not employees. The right approach was that taken by the lower court, which examined the “particular relationship and program.” What was also important was that the work (of serving the public) was required to attain the professional license in cosmetology. The court found that the students were paying the school “for the opportunity to receive both classroom instruction and supervised practical experience.”

It was also probative to the Court that the main business operations were centered on providing an education, not operating “actual” beauty salons. Thus, the Seventh Circuit ruled, “that the fact that students pay not just for the classroom time but also for the practical-training time is fundamentally inconsistent” with the notion that the students were employees.

The Takeaway

There has always been controversy over whether students at these types of schools are FLSA employees. It seems that when students are engaged in the usual and typical jobs and tasks that students engage in when they are pursuing a degree (of any kind), that is not “work.” Perhaps, even though the students here lost, others may try the same tactics, albeit in different jurisdictions.

If the tasks at issue are claimed or argued to be not connected to attaining a degree, maybe these cases would have better prospects of succeeding and giving some unlucky employer a real “haircut.”

The issue of whether to pay for training time is a vexing one.  In a recent case, a major airline avoided liability (for the most part) in a FLSA collective action alleging that it did not pay workers for time spent in a customer service-training program.  The Court held that the trainees were not employees “engaged” in work.  The case is entitled Otico v. Hawaiian Airlines Inc., and was filed in federal court in the Northern District of California.

Airplane
Copyright: khunaspix / 123RF Stock Photo

The individual (Otico) had claimed that she was entitled to ten days pay for her time spent in a pre-employment training program.  The Court concluded, in granting summary judgment that no reasonable juror could conclude that this person was acting as an “employee” when she took the training courses.  The Court found that the airline was not directly benefitting from any free labor.  The Court held that “the trainees receive the benefit of learning how to do a job they hope to get.  Otico, therefore, was the ‘primary beneficiary’ of the arrangement. Although one wonders why Hawaiian is unwilling to pay something to these people, since they no doubt must sacrifice to participate in the program, the law does not require it to do so.”

The employer contended that the training provided was equivalent to the kind of instruction that the people could have received at a trade or vocational school and which would have cost them a lot of money.  The airline also asserted that it incurred extra costs and there were disruptions to its operations that were a by-product of its providing the training.

Ms. Otico, as a part of the hiring process, claimed that she was compelled to attend the unpaid training course, which took ten days, for eight hours per day.  The people learned about federal regulations and how to utilize the airline computer/software system.  Ms. Otico completed the course in December 2015 and got a job with the airline after she passed a drug test and received clearance from the airport.

The Takeaway

I do not understand the judicial reasoning here.  The person claimed that attendance was mandatory, the course material was related to the trainee’s job, and attendance was during regular working hours.  If those facts are true, then, under FLSA regulations and precedent, this time should have been compensable.

granite slabs
Copyright: severija / 123RF Stock Photo

Usually, it is the USDOL that is seeking sanctions against an employer who has, in wholesale fashion, violated the Fair Labor Standards Act. Well, for once that wheel has turned the other way. A federal judge has just sanctioned Labor Secretary Tom Perez for discovery failures and the Court prevented the government from calling witnesses at trial. Further, the lawyer representing the agency has sought permission to withdraw from the case. The case is entitled Perez et al v. Virginia Marble and Granite Inc. et al, and was filed in federal court in the Eastern District of Virginia.

The Judge granted three motions for sanctions filed by the Company, “for reasons stated from the bench” in an Order filed a few days ago. The Judge also barred the Secretary from discussing a damages calculation at trial and denied the agency’s motion to extend the discovery deadline; that motion was filed five days after discovery closed. The agency admitted that several unexpected medical emergencies involving the agency attorney’s son delayed its discovery responses.

The agency had sued the Company, alleging overtime violations involving forty-six employees. The Complaint alleged that the Company paid some workers a flat rate for each day of work, but not the required time-and-a-half when they did overtime work. The agency also charged that the Company was altering their records to make it appear that the employees were paid proper overtime.

The Company, for its part, filed three sanctions motions, alleging discovery derelictions and deficiencies; the Company requested that the Court bar testimony regarding the agency’s damages calculation or, even better, dismiss the case completely. The Company contended that the Secretary failed to himself appear or make an investigator available for a deposition, failed to disclose the agency’s damages calculation and witness lists under Rule 26(a) and failed to respond to written discovery requests. The Company sought to accommodate scheduling issues and many times had asked for the damages calculation and witness list.

The Takeaway

This makes me feel good—even the Secretary of Labor can be sanctioned for failure to comply with discovery deadlines and protocols in federal court. I have found state courts much more lenient on discovery issues and failure to meet deadlines.

Good way to start the holidays!

  • Corporate travel spend is at great risk for non-compliance if business travelers make independent decisions about airlines, hotels and rental cars. In fact, companies that have a very loose travel policy, or no formal policy often end up with endlessly escalating travel expenses. Yet, preparing, approving and gaining travel policy support can be a daunting task, often creating more questions than answers. Learn how to build a travel policy that reflects company philosophy, avoids common mistakes under FLSA and DOL, and other best practices. Join me October 18 for my C4CM-hosted webinar “Writing & Enforcing a Corporate Travel Policy that Cuts Costs & Keeps Your Company FLSA/DOL Compliant.
  • The explosion of smartphones and tablets has eased the way for employees to have continuous remote connectivity to the workplace, presenting yet another liability threat for employers already battling an increase in overtime pay claims. An employer can be held liable for overtime pay for work it never requested from an employee upon a showing by the employee that the employer had actual or constructive knowledge of the work. Learn about the latest DOL developments impacting employees use of electronic devices after hours, how continuous connectivity of employees affect the definition of working time and compensable time, defenses to electronic overtime pay claims, and best practices to avoid such claims. Join me October 27 for my Stafford Live CLE-hosted webinar “Overtime Pay Claims for After-Hours Use of Electronic Devices: Navigating the Latest DOL and Case Law Developments.

The financial giant Morgan Stanley announced that it will settle four FLSA collective actions for six million dollars; the suits, filed by financial adviser trainees, alleged that they were not paid overtime properly.  The case is entitled Devries v. Morgan Stanley & Co. LLC et al. and was filed in federal court in the Southern District of Florida.

Dollars
Copyright: kentoh / 123RF Stock Photo

The parties asked U.S. District Judge Kenneth A. Marra to grant preliminary approval of the settlement, which includes attorneys’ fees of almost four million dollars as well.  The filing papers asserted that “the proposed settlement satisfies the criteria for approval of a Fair Labor Standards Act collective action settlement because it was reached after significant information exchange and contested litigation in four venues, and was the result of arm’s length settlement negotiations conducted by experienced counsel well-versed in wage and hour law.”

The settlement provides that members of two of the four collective actions will receive the equivalent of six hours of unpaid overtime for each week they worked, while the others will receive payments equivalent to those reached in a very similar case involving this company, which ended in 2014 with a $4.2 million settlement.  The case involved allegedly unpaid training and study time, i.e. off-the-clock work.  These types of cases have reached epidemic proportion and are showing no signs of losing vitality.  The plaintiffs alleged that although the bank had a written policy to pay overtime, there existed, in reality, a de facto “off-the-clock” policy in violation of the FLSA.

The Company defended this case aggressively, as noted by the assertions in the filings that the “plaintiffs believe that this amount represents a very fair settlement given the amount of unpaid overtime that was claimed, the uncertainty of success on collective certification, and defendants’ defenses on the merits, including its contention that that it provided paid time during the workweek for studying during training weeks and that it took steps to prevent its employees from studying off the clock.”

The Takeaway

The Company put forth a statement that it agreed to settle these lawsuits in order to avoid the cost and distraction of prolonged litigation.  That was the correct thing to do but the more important thing is to now make sure that proactive steps are taken to ensure that if study/reading time is mandated (or implicitly mandated) that the employees are compensated for that time.

There is no industry or business that is immune to FLSA collective actions.  One might think that the a “high end” jewelry business would not be hit with such a suit, but a California federal judge has just certified a class of Zales employees who have alleged that their employer did not pay overtime properly; that FLSA class has been certified, nationwide.  The case is entitled Tapia v. Zale Delaware Inc. et al., and was filed in federal court in the Southern District of California.

Diamond ring
Copyright: bigheado / 123RF Stock Photo

The class includes 1,600 workers in a class limited to California workers.  The plaintiffs alleged that the Company rounded down time reflected on time cards.  The judge found it “easy” to certify the class as the Company’s uniform payroll policy showed that the workers were similarly situated.  The Court stated that “plaintiff established that defendant uses the same ‘point of sale’ computer system to record the time its hourly employees work at the stores.  Thus, plaintiff is able to determine from defendant’s time records — to the minute — the time every employee in the class clocked in and clocked out.”

The judge rejected Zales’ essentially legal argument that its “rounding” practice was legal.  The Court concluded that it was too early into the case to make that merits-based determination.  That was the (just) the California case.  The Court also granted conditional certification of a nationwide class of possibly 20,000 workers who worked at Zales since July 2010.  They alleged that the same rounding practices deprived them of overtime monies.  Again the Judge found commonality, stating that the “plaintiff has shown that there are other similarly situated employees because defendant uses the same payroll procedures at all of its stores.”

The named plaintiff, who was fired after less than one year, alleged that her time records were altered to show that she worked fewer hours than she actually did.  For example, if she worked nine hours and three minutes, the extra three minutes were automatically deducted.  She also claimed that a thirty minute lunch was deducted, whether she took her lunch or worked through it and she was not paid overtime.  The brevity of her employment may undermine her credibility.  The Company strongly denies the allegations and contends that the rounding system was in compliance with FLSA standards.

The Takeaway

This class was certified due to the overall, uniform practice of rounding employee time down (and, hopefully, up).  This is dangerous.  In many class actions, we defend by arguing that too much individualized scrutiny is called for and that is why the necessary commonality does not exist.  Here, where an overriding practice obtains, that argument goes away.  What the Employer is left with, it seems, is contending that the rounding practice comported with the FLSA.

All those eggs in a single basket?

I have a feeling it may hold them…

Usually, when a party does not respond to discovery requests, it can face sanctions, including the dismissal of the case (if he/they are the plaintiff(s).  Well, that truism took a hit the other day when a New Jersey federal judge did not dismiss the claims of two opt-in plaintiffs in a FLSA collective action against General Electric Company, as the Court concluded that the delays in their responding to discovery by service technicians, who have charged they were not compensated for off-the-clock duties, did not mandate dismissal of their case.  The case is entitled Maddy et al. v. General Electric Co., and was filed in federal court in the District of New Jersey.

Copyright: marsil / 123RF Stock Photo
Copyright: marsil / 123RF Stock Photo

Although the plaintiffs had a lengthy history of delinquent discovery responses, including a year-long lack of response to certain discovery requests, the Judge refused to throw their claims out.  The Judge examined the so-called Poulis factors, the Third Circuit six-part standard  to determine whether to dismiss a case for failure to comply with discovery and concluded that, in their totality, the standards weighed against dismissal. The Court found that “the only factors which somewhat weigh in favor of dismissal are the extent of the parties’ personal responsibility and the history of dilatoriness.”

The Judge found no evidence to support the employer’s claim that it had been prejudiced by the discovery delay nor was there any evidence that the two opt-ins had acted in bad faith when eventually responded to the May 2014 request in September 2015.  Significantly, the Judge also found that the plaintiffs’ claims seemed meritorious (which is one of the Poulis factors) as the defendant had not filed a motion challenging the legal sufficiency of the claims.

The allegations were that employees were doing preliminary, off-the-clock work.  The employees charge that spent time on integrally connected tasks, including time spent logging in to the computer system in order to download jobs, responding to emails and travel time.  Importantly, they allege that their supervisors intimidated them when they tried to report the time worked on their timesheets.

The Takeaway

This case evidences the “leniency” with which courts allow plaintiffs to continue to press their claims, even in the face of dilatory (beyond words) conduct in responding to discovery.  It seems if the defendant had made some motion to dismiss or challenge the claims, on their own merits, the result might have been different.

The bigger issue is whether, in reality, the employees were working off-the-clock or performing tasks so directly connected to their primary jobs that those sideline activities became compensable.  If supervisors intimidated employees not to report the time, that is bad enough on its own and worse, it will fortify the allegations of how many hours they claimed they worked.

The USDOL has announced a proposed rule for implementing the President’s Executive Order, which would require federal government contractors to offer employees up to seven days of paid sick leave.  This is a bold initiative that is paralleling this fairly common fringe benefit offered by many private employers, but which construction contractors were perhaps less ready to implement for their employees.

Sick person and paid sick leave
Copyright: racorn / 123RF Stock Photo

The proposed rule will be published in the Federal Register on March 3, 2016.  The agency believes that more than 437,000 employees of contractors do not receive this benefit and this proposal provides a way by which workers will not have to choose between their health and their paycheck, according to the Secretary of Labor.

At the time the Executive Order was signed, there was a fear that this would lead to a federal law regarding paid sick leave legislation.  The proposal would allow employees to utilize the paid sick leave not only for their own illnesses and conditions, but also to care for sick children, parents, spouses or partners.  Another usage would be for circumstances related to domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking.

The rule would apply to, among other things, Davis-Bacon Act projects and work under the Service Contract Act.  The rule would apply to new contracts (and extensions of expiring contracts) that result from solicitations issued on or after Jan. 1, 2017, or that are awarded outside the solicitation process as of Jan. 1, 2017.

There are specific requirements for how employers treat accrued but unused paid sick leave.

Contractors have to allow employees to carry over any unused leave into the next year.  It also requires contractors to reinstate employees’ accrued, unused paid sick leave upon rehiring by the same contractor or successor entity within 12 months after job separation.  However, contractors will not have to pay out unused paid sick leave to employees at separation.

The Takeaway

Many foreign countries, like Canada, have all kinds of fringe benefit items statutorily set and there is little, if any, room for dispute because the statute spells everything out.  So maybe a federal, uniform law/procedure for some fringe benefits might establish reasonable overall standards. Then, employers would not have to consider/agonize about whether or not go provide such benefits.

I believe there are very, very few employment-related lawsuits in Canada.  Maybe they’re on to something.