Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)

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!

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.

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.”

I always look for a preemption defense when I am defending a FLSA collective action, whenever there is a labor contract involved. What a magic bullet that is—get rid of the entire matter in one fell swoop (with maybe just a 12(b)(6) motion). But, and it is a big but, there must be something in the labor contract that is pertinent. If not, that tactic fails, as evidenced by a recent (split) Third Circuit opinion.  The Court refused to dismiss a FLSA collective action brought by nurses at a New Jersey assisted living home and send the case to arbitration, asserting that there were factual disputes, not claims contained within the collective bargaining agreement. The case is entitled Tymeco Jones et al. v. SCO Silver Care Operations LLC, and was issued by the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.

Hospital Emergency signThe plaintiffs alleged that their employed miscalculated their overtime wages and did not pay them when they were compelled to work through lunch. The Court found that the workers did not explicitly waive their right to sue under the Fair Labor Standards Act and the claims did not center on a contractual dispute at its heart. As the majority succinctly stated, “neither of the plaintiffs’ FLSA claims depend on disputed interpretations of CBA provisions such that arbitration is necessary.”

The nurses filed the action in December 2013, charging that the Company did not include shift differentials (up to $3.00 per hour) when calculating their overtime, i.e. their regular rate and also claimed they were not paid for working through lunch on the many occasions that they did. The employer argued that the case should have been sent to arbitration.

The Third Circuit noted that a court could compel arbitration on a federal statutory claim when the Union “clearly and unmistakably” waived its right to sue and the statute at issue did not exclude arbitration as a forum. In addition, a court could order arbitration when the claims depended “on the disputed interpretation of a CBA provision” even if the Union had not waived its right to sue.  That was not the case herein, as the Court concluded that “all of these so-called disputed ‘interpretations’ of the CBA … are factual questions — length of meal breaks, types of interruptions, how they were handled and whether the plaintiffs ever received compensation due to these interruptions.”

The Takeaway

I think this is a chance worth taking. There are always labor contract articles that focus on methods and amounts of compensation. I believe, all the time, a plausible argument can be made for a preemption position. The employer here came close to prevailing. Even if the employer loses, I believe it makes the case that the challenged payment method is legal, because, if it was not, wouldn’t the Union have challenged it or negotiated it out of the contract?        

The House has voted by 229-197 to pass a Republican bill that allows employers to offer compensatory time off rather than time-and-a-half wages for overtime hours.  A few days ago, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce voted 22-16 along party lines to approve the Working Families Flexibility Act (H.R. 1180, S. 801).  This is a rather perplexing move, given that the Trump Administration has not yet publicly decided whether it will support the overtime rule introduced by the previous Administration, which would make four million workers eligible for overtime.

U.S. Capitol Building
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This bill amends the Fair Labor Standards Act to allow employers and workers to voluntarily agree to 1.5 hours of compensatory time for every hour of overtime worked, for up to 160 hours of leave. The requested time would have to be approved by the employer.  This law would cover private sector workers; since 1985, the FLSA has permitted public sector employees to be given compensatory time in lieu of being paid cash overtime.

The Democrats strongly criticize the legislation, alleging the measure would help employers coerce workers to pass on overtime pay.  Congressman Scott (D-Va) stated that “H.R. 1180 doesn’t give employees any rights they don’t already have.  Most employees can already take time off without pay. The bill does, however, create a new right for employers to withhold employees’ overtime pay.”  The Republicans respond by asserting there are protections in the bill to stop employers from taking these kinds of actions.

A number of conservative groups and the Trump Administration have supported the bill.  One of its sponsors, Representative Byrne, asserts the bill’s purpose is to offer workplace flexibility.  He stated that “all we are trying to do is give workers a choice.  Policies written in the 1930s that are out of step with the needs of the 21st century workforce shouldn’t stand in the way of flexibility for workers and their families.”

Now it goes to the Senate.

The Takeaway

I think this is a good thing.  I know that many workers would rather have paid time off rather than receiving the overtime wages because the overtime is significantly taxed and the workers prefer time off, whether to spend with family or otherwise enjoy.

I can understand that…

I have blogged so many times about Assistant Manager class actions.  I never seem to get tired of it because there is a never-ending “supply” of them.  Guess what.  Another one.  A group of employees working for AC Moore, an arts, crafts and floral merchandise retailer, has petitioned a federal judge to approve an almost three-million dollar settlement that settles claims that they have been misclassified as exempt executive employees.  The case is entitled  Rossmeisl et al. v. A.C. Moore Arts & Crafts Inc., and was filed in federal court in the District of Massachusetts.

Arts & crafts items
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The plaintiffs asked for the court approval a bare two months after they filed their collective action.  Their theory was that they were misclassified as exempt.  They argued equally hard that the settlement should be approved because it was the right thing to do.  They stated that “the settlement was the result of extensive pre-suit investigation, discovery and substantial arm’s-length negotiations.  Recognizing the uncertain legal and factual issues involved, the parties reached the settlement pending before the court after private mediation before an experienced mediator.”

The lawyers for the plaintiffs advised the employer that they were alleging that the assistant general managers were misclassified as exempt in January 2016.  The parties then entered into pre-litigation discussions to ascertain if a settlement was possible.  The Complaint was nevertheless filed on February 8.  The court papers then capture the essence of why this settlement should be approved.

The court papers advised the Judge that “the settlement, which followed a thorough investigation and mediation with a former federal magistrate judge, Hon. Diane Welsh, satisfies the criteria for approval of a Fair Labor Standards Act collective action settlement because it resolves a bona-fide dispute, was reached after in-depth investigation and review of significant documentary evidence and payroll data, was the result of arm’s-length settlement negotiations assisted by a private mediator and between experienced counsel and provides good value to the workers it will benefit.”

The Takeaway

This is an interesting tactic employed by the lawyers for the plaintiffs.  Avoid litigation, but still get a nice settlement.  It might also be better for an employer but there might be, I fear, too ready a desire to settle at such an early stage, just to avoid the (rapidly) escalating legal fees associated with defending such a case.  Naturally, the merits, good or bad, dictate the employer’s strategic decision.