Now that the new $35,000 per annum overtime rule has been proposed, the commentators have been commenting on the implications.  I have read these with great interest.  For example, Alexander Passantino, former DOL Wage Hour Division chief, stated that “it just struck me as funny that it’s within $5 per week of the exact midpoint between the $23,660 and the $47,476.  It is as close to the middle as you can get without making it totally in the middle.”

The figure is where it was expected to be by most commentators.  This is in spite of worker advocates urging that the number be set much higher.  Congressman Bobby Scott, D-Va., stated that although the new salary level provides overtime to some workers, it “would exclude millions … who would have benefited under the 2016 Obama administration rule.”

There are also no automatic updates or escalators.  In lieu of such increases, there will be potential increases every four years but there will first be a notice and comment period.  Mr. Passantino stated that the DOL was trying to walk a fine line between business and employee interests.  He stated that “I think the automatic update strikes me as an attempt to go down the middle again.  They’re going to get comments that say there should be automatic updates, and they’re going to get comments that say there shouldn’t be.  I can’t imagine there are going to be very many comments that say there shouldn’t be, but you should totally think about it every four years.”

What has surprised many observers is that the salary level for highly compensated employees, the HCE exemption, was raised higher than even the Obama proposal had set it.  The new level of $147,000 is almost $50,000 higher than the 2004 level ($100,000) and $13,000 more than the 2016 Obama proposal.  Lee Schreter, a wage-hour attorney, stated that “I think the biggest impact of the rule will not be the minimum salary. I think the place where the impact is going to be felt most and where I think you’re going to see some employer push back is on the increase in the highly compensated.”

The issue had come up early on whether there would be different salary levels for each white collar exemption — executive, administrative and professional.  There was also the possibility of effecting geographic/regional salary level. These possible modifications did not make it into the final proposal.

The Takeaway

Interesting tidbits…

We have been waiting for the United States Department of Labor to announce its plan for toning down the overtime rule revisions implemented in the last administration, but stayed by federal courts, and to announce its own proposal. Now, that momentous event has happened—the agency announced yesterday it will set the salary threshold at $35,308 per annum.  The new level will go into effect in January 2020.  This amounts to a weekly salary of $679 per week.

The agency also announced that the Highly Compensated Exemption (HCE), now set at $100,000, will rise to approximately $147,000.  This figure is actually almost $13,000 higher than the Obama-administration proposal.

Significantly, there are no proposed changes to the duties test. Of equal significance is the fact that employers may utilize certain nondiscretionary bonuses and commissions to meet 10% of the new salary requirement.  The rule also proposed updating the salary level every four years but only after notice-and-comment periods that precede the increases.

The Takeaway

I think this is a reasonable compromise. The truth is that a salary of $700 per week is not a dramatic increase and the $455 per week threshold was too low.  This is fair and I believe that employers will not “go crazy” over the new salary level.

But, we will see…

When will employers learn?  They keep classifying retail Store Managers and Assistant Managers as exempt, when these workers are often misclassified, not intentionally, but because the nature of their duties often tends to undermine the primary duty test and render them non-exempt.  Another example is a recent case where Store Managers have been granted conditional certification in their FLSA collective action.  The case is entitled Spack et al. v. Trans World Entertainment Corp. and was filed in federal court in the Northern District of New York.

The plaintiffs can now send out notices to current and former store managers so they might opt in to the case.  The plaintiffs also want a class of Assistant Managers for alleged off the clock work.  The Company, however, won that round, convincing the Judge that it was too soon to certify such a class, asserting that it had not yet been ascertained if these workers were non-exempt, which would allow them to make these claims.

The Judge appeared to reserve decision on a combined class and also indicated that the class could also be de-certified.  The Court stated that “should additional discovery demonstrate the existence of significant differences between the SMs or between the SMs and SAMs, the court can choose to deny any future motion seeking conditional collective certification of the SAMs, or, at the second stage of the analysis, decertify the collective.”

The plaintiffs met the “modest” burden at this conditional stage by submitting twelve Certifications from opt-in plaintiffs who claimed they worked 50-70 hours per week and spent the vast majority of their time performing non-exempt, low-level tasks that were not managerial in nature.  The Company also submitted statements from managers that showed they performed managerial (i.e. exempt) work and tried to undermine the plaintiffs’ statements but the Court would not allow these manager statements to bear the weight that the Company urged they should be accorded.

The Takeaway

My advice to employers is to test the duties of their management personnel, especially lower level managers, against the criteria in the FLSA regulations.  This can be done via a “self-audit” or internal audit, of which I have conducted dozens.  You also need to check the law of the particular state in which the controversy may be litigated, as the state law may be tougher than the FLSA standards, such as in California or New York.

The retail industry is notoriously prone to FLSA collective action misclassification lawsuits because there are many levels of management, especially so-called lower management, where the employees may/may not discharge actual/true supervisory powers. Another illustration of this principle has resulted in a large dollar settlement that will pay employees known as “sales team managers” a fairly large amount of money, although the exact amount has not been disclosed. What was disclosed is that the plaintiffs’ lawyers will receive almost two million dollars in attorney fees! The case is entitled , and was filed in federal court in the Eastern District of Texas.

ArbitrationThe Judge examined the six-factor test under the Fair Labor Standards Act for granting approval to such settlements and concluded that there was no evidence of fraud and also, importantly, that the settlement addresses the plaintiffs’ possibility of prevailing on the merits. The Court stated that “after considering the factors, the court finds that the settlement agreement should be approved because it is a fair and reasonable settlement of a bona fide dispute.”

The hundreds of sales team managers claimed that they performed the same job duties as their subordinates, such as selling, restocking products and maintaining the organization of the store and the clothing racks. The employees denied that they performed any managerial tasks, such as hiring or firing. In sum, they alleged that although they had the title of “manager,” they were not at all performing the tasks required under the Part 541 regulations that address exempt status. There were 384 workers who had opted in.

As is typical in these cases, the parties devised a formula for determining the amounts of money workers will receive. It will be based on the number of weeks they worked in the three years before they opted in. It remains unclear the aggregate amount of money that the employees will receive, as that (important) fact was redacted.

The Judge noted that the fourth factor, the “probability of the plaintiffs’ success on the merits,” was the “most important factor absent fraud and collusion.” The Judge observed that the employees “face considerable hurdles in succeeding on the merits.” Thus, the Judge concluded that the settlement represented a “fair and reasonable recovery.”

The Takeaway

As these lawsuits are so common, my advice to my clients for years has been to treat lower level managers as non-exempt and pay them hourly. It is possible to take the salary being paid and “back into” a correct hourly rate so that, even with the anticipated overtime worked, the employer’s labor costs will not be increased. That puts an end to the threat of a misclassification lawsuit.

It works…