Connecticut Employment Law Blog

Insight on Labor & Employment Developments for Connecticut Businesses

Settling FLSA Wage & Hour Claims? Court Approval May Be Needed

Posted in Highlight, Human Resources (HR) Compliance, Litigation, Wage & Hour
Throw out the release?

Throw out the release?

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to talk at the Connecticut Legal Conference about employment law issues. My talk focused on free speech rights in the workplace — a topic I’ve covered well in some prior posts here and here, for example.

One of the other topics of our discussion was the Cheeks v. Freeport Pancake House case — a recent case by the Second Circuit discussing wage & hour claim settlements under the Fair Labor Standards Act.

I’ve talked about this issue in prior posts as well but the general takeaway from the discussion yesterday was a renewed emphasis on receiving approval from either a federal court or the U.S. Department of Labor on any wage/hour claim settlements.

In most employment law cases filed in federal court, when a settlement is reached, the parties typically stipulate to the dismissal of the claim under a rule of civil procedure (Rule 41).

In Cheeks, the Second Circuit said that wasn’t good enough due to the unique nature of wage/hour claims and that employees were particularly susceptible to bad settlements:

We conclude that the cases discussed above, read in light of the unique policy considerations underlying the FLSA, place the FLSA within Rule 41’s “applicable federal statute” exception. Thus, Rule 41(a)(1)(A)(ii) stipulated dismissals settling FLSA claims with prejudice require the approval of the district court or the DOL to take effect. Requiring judicial or DOL approval of such settlements is consistent with what both the Supreme Court and our Court have long recognized as the FLSA’s underlying purpose: “to extend the frontiers of social progress by insuring to all our able-bodied working men and women a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.”

The Court pointed out settlements in other cases which might be troubling.

In [one case], the proposed settlement agreement included (1) “a battery of highly restrictive confidentiality provisions ․ in strong tension with the remedial purposes of the FLSA;” (2) an overbroad release that would “waive practically any possible claim against the defendants, including unknown claims and claims that have no relationship whatsoever to wage-and-hour issues;” and (3) a provision that would set the fee for plaintiff’s attorney at “between 40 and 43.6 percent of the total settlement payment” without adequate documentation to support such a fee award….. In [another case], the district court rejected a proposed FLSA settlement in part because it contained a pledge by plaintiff’s attorney not to “represent any person bringing similar claims against Defendants.” … “Such a provision raises the specter of defendants settling FLSA claims with plaintiffs, perhaps at a premium, in order to avoid a collective action or individual lawsuits from other employees whose rights have been similarly violated.”

Would these apply to claims that were not filed in federal court to begin with? The speakers said the decision left that open a bit but still recommended that parties seek USDOL approval or even file the suit in federal court and seek judicial approval at the same time.

While the court noted that this might be difficult, “the burdens…must be balanced against the FLSA’s primary remedial purpose: to prevent abuses by unscrupulous employers, and remedy the disparate bargaining power between employers and employees.”

Note: These same rules do not apply to settlements under the state wage/hour laws and if you’re not covered by the FLSA, there isn’t much of a need to follow that — at least until the issue is raised in state courts.

But suffice to say that if you get a claim by a current or former employee regarding, say, past overtime wages, be wary of settling the claim without receiving outside approval.

Volunteers: Can They Really Help Fix Your Issues With New Overtime Rules?

Posted in Highlight, Human Resources (HR) Compliance, Laws and Regulations, Wage & Hour

wheelchairOver the weekend, I finished planning for our webinar tomorrow on the new overtime rules.  In digging deeper into the materials produced by the Department of Labor on the final rule, I looked at the use of volunteers as a solution — particularly for non-profit organizations.

For the “for-profit” world, this is probably not a realistic option.  The DOL really frowns on any such designation.

But on the last page of the 10-page guidance for non-profits, is a whole section on how non-profit organizations can use volunteer services if certain conditions are met.

To be sure, the new overtime rule doesn’t change the existing rules governing volunteers, but as non-profits look at how to address the issue internally, the use of volunteers may pop up.

So who is a volunteer? According to the DOL: 

A volunteer generally will not be considered an employee for purposes of the FLSA if the individual volunteers freely for public service, religious, or humanitarian objectives, and without contemplation or receipt of compensation. …  Under the FLSA, a person who works in a volunteer role must be a bona fide volunteer.

Some examples of the many ways in which volunteers may contribute to an organization include:
• members of civic organizations may help out in a community rehabilitation program;
• men’s or women’s organizations may send members to adult day care centers to provide certain personal services for the sick or elderly;
• individuals may volunteer to perform such tasks as driving vehicles or assisting with disaster relief; and
• individuals may volunteer to work with children with disabilities or disadvantaged youth, helping in youth programs as camp counselors, scoutmasters, den mothers, providing child care assistance for needy working parents, soliciting contributions or participating in benefit programs for such organizations, and volunteering other services
needed to carry out their charitable, educational, or religious programs.

So, problem solved right? Well, not exactly. The DOL suggests that volunteers serve on a part-time basis and, here’s the key point:
“should not displace employees or perform work that would otherwise typically be performed by employees.”

And what about having paid employees volunteer their extra time? According to the DOL: paid employees of non-profit organizations may not volunteer to provide the same type of services to the non-profit organization that they are otherwise
typically employed to provide.

The DOL provides two examples:

  1. A non-profit medical clinic has an office manager who handles office operations and procedures. The clinic hosts an annual 5K fun run in order to raise funds for its free services. In past years, the office manager also spent time on race day working by registering runners the morning of the run. Newly non-exempt under the Final Rule, the non-profit clinic may permissibly choose to utilize more volunteers this year to register runners instead of tasking the office manager with that assignment (provided all the conditions for bona fide volunteers are met), thus avoiding the accumulation of overtime hours in that week for the office manager.
  2. Using the same facts as above, many other individuals from the community volunteer on race day. The volunteer activities, such as packet pickups, course marshaling, water distribution, and staffing food tables at the finish line, are activities that are not typically performed by employees of the medical clinic. Based on these facts, the individuals are likely bona fide volunteers.

The use of volunteers can be part of a solution to rising overtime costs at a non-profit, but only just part.  The notion that you can just replace your employees with volunteers is not realistic.

We’ll talk more about this and other overtime issues tomorrow.  Hope you are able to join us.

Travel Time: An Added Complication to New Overtime Rules

Posted in Highlight, Human Resources (HR) Compliance, Laws and Regulations, Manager & HR Pro’s Resource Center, Wage & Hour

cablecarI’m looking forward to “seeing” lots of you at next week’s free webinar we’re having on the new overtime rules and how they impact Connecticut employers.

One of the issues that we’ll touch upon is how the new rules are going to add complications for many employers — and particularly non-profits.

Take, for example, an employee whose job requires travel in Connecticut, perhaps meeting clients.  If that employee makes under the new salary threshold — $47,475/year — (and doesn’t meet any other exemption) then the employee will have to be classified as non-exempt, and therefore eligible to receive overtime.

All of a sudden, time spent travelling needs to be tracked and accounted for. And those rules aren’t necessarily easy.

I’ve talked a bunch about these rules in prior posts (here, here, and here, for example). The interaction between state and federal law on the subject is enough to make your head spin.

But the gist of it is that non-exempt employees will need to be paid for travel time during normal working hours (whatever those may be), but not necessarily for commutes to and from work.

If you are moving an employee from exempt status to non-exempt status, it’s just another example of how application of the relatively straightforward new overtime rule can have added complications.

For more on these issues, feel free to sign up for our June 7th at noon webinar.

Is There A Difference Between Firing Because of Age vs. Salary?

Posted in Discrimination & Harassment, Highlight

franklinUp on Fortune magazine’s column “Practically Speaking” is the following question:

Frank has been with us for more than 20 years. He works in the warehouse and has done a good job for us. I like him. But, to be honest, for the work he performs I could easily replace him someone younger and … cheaper. Would it be wrong to let him go?

Well, what a loaded question.  The advice column side-steps an important issue and gets into a discussion regarding overhead, benefits, etc.

If you follow this path blindly, you may walk right into a lawsuit.

Why? Because discrimination laws prohibit discrimination on the basis of age and you’re already acknowledging that you want someone “younger” — even if salary considerations may also be involved.

In fact, there have already been cases that talk about similar scenarios. In one case, a supervisor told an employee that he was “looking for younger single people” and that, as a consequence, the employee “wouldn’t be happy [at the company] in the future.”  In other cases, comments about replacing workers with “younger, cheaper” ones can also be used to support an age discrimination claim.

Even without the comment, a replacement by an employer of an employee with someone significantly younger can give rise to an inference of age discrimination.

So, case closed?

Well, maybe in this instance, since the employer already has this “younger” notion embedded in its decision-making process.

But suppose the employer is looking to cut costs and wants to replace higher salaried workers with cheaper ones: Can it do that?

Well, after the court’s decision in Gross (which I discussed way back here): Maybe.  The court there held that age must be the decisive factor in the employer’s decision and that “but for” the employee’s age, the employer would not have made the same decision.

Thus, an employer who believes it can get the same work done by an someone at a lower salary may sometimes survive an age discrimination claim — so long as age doesn’t factor into the decision.  But before you do this, be sure to consult with legal counsel as it’s a minefield to navigate.  This is particularly true in Connecticut where it remains to be seen how closely the courts will truly follow federal law in this instance.

And one more note:  Terminating employees to avoid further pension obligations or other benefits is likely illegal in many instances under federal law.  The Older Workers Benefit Protection Act (OWBPA), which we often think of as only applying to separation agreements, also made it illegal for employers to use an employee’s age as the basis for discrimination in benefits, and to target older workers for their staff cutting programs on the basis that benefits were too costly.

Cost considerations are certainly important for companies to consider. But tying those considerations to age is a step too far under the law.   Be sure to understand the distinctions. And try not to blindly follow advice columns (or even blog posts!); each circumstance is different and getting appropriate legal advice in this instance really is critical.

Free Webinar: Important CT Employer Update on New Federal Overtime Rule

Posted in Highlight

With the new federal overtime rules going into effect later this year, I thought it would be useful to talk about in a free webinar.

And apparently, many of you think it would be useful too because in the 48 hours that we’ve opened up the signups to our webinar, we already have a record-breaking number of signups.

worker3But because it’s online, we have room for more.  So consider this your invite to attend a free webinar on June 7th from noon to 1 p.m. EDT.

Topics will include:

  • Overview of the new federal overtime rule
  • Comparison with Connecticut’s existing (and unchanged) wage and hour rules
  • Tips on how to comply with both state and federal law
  • Discussion of common scenarios arising under the new law

I know there’s a lot of anxiety about these rules, but I hope this webinar can put a smile to your face and ease some of your concerns.

If not, then watch the James Corden version of the “Chewbacca Mom” meme.    If that doesn’t put a smile to your face, I’m not sure the webinar is going to help.

One Big Thing For Employers to Know About the New Overtime Rule

Posted in Highlight, Laws and Regulations, Wage & Hour
Making Lemonade Out of Lemons

Making Lemonade Out of Lemons

Are you tired of lawyers commenting already on the new overtime rules?

(The answer should be no, of course, since you’re reading this blog and thus have room for one more view.)

But I think it’s fair to say that we haven’t seen a feeding frenzy like this on employment law in many, many years.  And with the massive publicity of this rule comes an opportunity, as I’ll explain too.

So, dear readers, deep breath time.   We’ll get through it together.

There’s already been lots of pixels spilled about how employers can “solve” their overtime issues that will arise under this rule by making various changes in their workplace.

For example, employers can increase an employee’s salary to $47,476 annually if that employee otherwise meets the duties test, to keep an employee “exempt” from overtime.

Or the employer can limit the overtime that the employee can work, explaining that it is concerned with controlling costs.

But in all the analysis, I think one big thing has been overlooked: Employers can use this announcement as an opportunity to review and re-classify all sorts of employees — even if they are not directly impacted by the new rule.

Too often, employers who discover that they have misclassified employees believe that they are in a conundrum. Keep their head down and hope no one notices, or properly classify the employee and keep their fingers crossed that they don’t get sued for back pay.  Neither option is a great one for employers who need to get into compliance. (I once proposed an amnesty proposal to solve this dilemma.)   Sometimes, employers have legitimate reasons why an employee has been classified as non-exempt but wants to avoid any future issues. Perhaps in other situations the employee isn’t working overtime anyways.

But here is where the opportunity comes in: As I highlighted at the start, the new overtime rule has received unprecedented amounts of publicity in the workplace. No doubt most of your employees have now heard something about it.  So, some won’t be surprised if they are notified that things are changing for their position as a result of the new rule.

While the rule doesn’t provide amnesty for employers who make such changes, the new rule does remove some of the suspicions employees may have about the changes — even when those changes are perfectly legal.  Employees may be more understanding.  Employers can explain truthfully that the new rule has required them to review the classification of all of its employees and the changes are as a result of the rule.

So, yes, the rule may be difficult to comply with. But don’t miss out on the opportunities that may arise from this rule as well.  Full compliance with the law will be so much cheaper than paying for a massive wage-and-hour suit.  And as I’ve said before, compliance is the ultimate goal. You should not be looking for ways to circumvent the law.

So ultimately, perhaps you’ll view the new overtime rule as more about lemonade than lemons, as the saying goes.

Final Overtime Rule Released; Challenges Ahead for Connecticut Employers

Posted in Featured, Highlight, Human Resources (HR) Compliance, Laws and Regulations, Manager & HR Pro’s Resource Center, Wage & Hour

presentsIf you like to open your presents on Christmas Eve, the U.S. Department of Labor is for you. Last night, the DOL posted the final revised rule on overtime on its website ahead of its planned announcement this afternoon.

What a gift for employment lawyers!  Needless to say, I was up late unwrapping all my “gifts.”

Remember: These changes apply only to the so-called white-collar exemptions: Executive, Administrative and Professional.  So, if the employee falls within a different exemption, this rule does not apply.

And, as I’ll explain below, for Connecticut employers, the challenges are just beginning.  The rule applies to all employers covered by the FLSA (FLSA covers employers engaged in interstate commerce and gross volume of $500,000.00 in sales) but Connecticut employers will also have to worry about state law as well.

Here are the highlights (the DOL has released a chart comparing all the changes as well):

  • As expected, the new rule changes the salary basis to $47,476 annually ($913/week) — slightly less than the proposed rule last year. In plain English, anyone who makes less than this amount must be paid overtime for any hours over 40 in a work week — regardless of his or her duties.
  • This threshold will change every three years, and will be tied to the salary level at the 40th percentile of earnings of full-time salaried workers in the lowest-wage Census Region, currently the South.
  • The new rule makes no changes to the duties test.   If an employee had duties that fell within the executive exemption, for example, they will still be exempt — that is, if their minimum salary now meets the threshold of $47,476.
  • The rule increases the “highly compensated employee” exception to the exemption to $134,004 – and that too will change every three years. (But note that Connecticut law does not have such an exception.)
  • The rule becomes effective December 1, 2016. Note that December 1 is a Thursday, so employers will have to make sure that the entire pay period is compliant with the new rule.
  • The new rule will now permits employers to use non-discretionary bonuses and incentive payments (including commissions) to satisfy up to 10 percent of the new standard salary level.  This is a brand new element and should help employers meet that threshold (a bit).

The USDOL also released guidance for non-profits and higher education to address concerns in those areas.  Those employers should review that guidance specifically.

For Connecticut employers, though, take a deep breath before jumping in.  Connecticut has its own state law and regulations that are now in conflict with this federal rule. And as the CTDOL notes in its guide to wage & workplace laws: “The laws that provide the higher or stricter standard shall apply.”

What does that mean here? We’ll have to wait and see if the Connecticut Department of Labor updates its guidance for starters.  It is challenging for Connecticut to update its regulations so, for now, we can only hope that the CTDOL might at least shed some light on how it might enforce the state rules. (There is a helpful chart that it has used in the past, for example, that could be updated.)

But here, on first glance, are three other items of concern I have for now:

  1. The salary test in Connecticut does not contain an allowance to consider nondiscretionary bonuses.  Will that change (at least as a matter of enforcement) now that the federal regulations allow employers to consider that? And how should the deduction rule be applied in such an instance? Would Connecticut recognize an increased salary basis but without such bonuses as the more “protective” of the law?
  2. The CTDOL has previously recognized a “no man’s land” (its words) where the interaction of the rules is confusing; how will it deal with a similar (and much larger) no man’s land where the salary is higher, but the duties test has been met?
  3. Connecticut does not have an exemption for highly compensated employees. The new federal rule does not change state law and thus the HCE exemption will still not apply here.  Will the CTDOL reconsider that in light of the increased threshold at a federal level?

What’s the Takeaway for Employers in Connecticut?

For employers in Connecticut, do not just blindly adopt the new federal rule into your workplace.

For example, increasing the base salary to avoid overtime obligations under the federal rule may not matter if the employee does not meet the duties test under Connecticut law for the same exemption.

This is one of those situations that will require a case-by-case look at specific positions and the interaction between state and federal law.  Unfortunately, you’ll probably want to consult heavily with various HR consultants or lawyers specializing in employment law.

So, as a said before, stay calm. You can do this.  You have until December.

 

Three Things to Look For In Final Overtime Regulations

Posted in Highlight, Human Resources (HR) Compliance, Wage & Hour
USDOL Headquarters in DC

USDOL Headquarters in DC

Late Monday, several reports on Twitter indicated that the Department of Labor would be announcing and releasing the final version of the revisions to the white-collar overtime regulations.  You can see my prior posts on the subject here and here.

This has been a long time coming. It was way back in 2014 (!) that the President indicated that he wanted the USDOL to revisit them.

And the anticipation on Twitter has been breathless with so-called experts predicting for months that the new regulations would be released any day. Or last week.  Or in July.  And speculation on what would be in the final overtime rule has run rampant.

So, rather than predict what will be in the final regulations, I want to highlight three areas that I’ll be looking at in my initial review of the regulation.

  1. Salary Test: The proposed rule last year raised the salary test to $50,440 from its current level of $23,660 (which the vast majority of employees meet in Connecticut due to minimum wage being high.)  The latest thinking is that the final rule will set that threshold at $47,000.  (UPDATED: News reports on Tuesday afternoon indicated that the threshold will be set at $47,476 and be updated every three years.)  What does that mean? It means that any employee who is paid less than that amount regardless of his or her duties would need to be paid overtime for any work over 40 hours.  That would indeed be a big change.  So, when we look at the new rule, first item to look at is the salary threshold set by the USDOL.  There is no question it will be high; it’s just a question of how high.  Bonus item to look at: Will the salary test be tied to inflation? In other words – will the threshold keep up with inflation automatically in future years? The proposed version tied it to the 40 percentile of income; will that remain in the final rule?
  2. Duties Test: The proposed rule did not explicitly change the duties test for overtime — meaning that the administrative, professional and executive exemptions would still apply as current framed — albeit at a higher salary threshold.  However, the proposed rule solicited input from the public about how best to alter the duties part of the test.  Would the USDOL be so bold as to introduce changes to the duties test without first floating it in a proposed rule? The prevailing wisdom is no, but keep an eye on that and any hints about future revisions to this rule. (UPDATED: News reports on Tuesday suggest that no changes to the duties tests will be forthcoming.)
  3. Timing: Another thing to look for in the final rule: How much time will employers have to comply? And how long until the rules go into effect? Back in November 2015, a government official suggested that employers would have 60 days to comply. Will that hold up? (UPDATED: News reports on Tuesday also indicated that employers will have until December 1, 2016.) 

For employers in Connecticut, the new rules will make things particularly challenging. For years, Connecticut’s stricter overtime rules have been the go-to source for employers. However, with the new federal rules being even stricter (or, more favorable to the employee) than the state rule, we may see a return to federal dominance.  So a bonus thing to look for in Connecticut: How will these rules interact with Connecticut’s rule? Don’t just read the federal rule in isolation.

And to be clear, there are other aspects of this rule that we will undoubtedly have to look for.  But I’m not going to make predictions about a rule we haven’t seen.

I will make one overall prediction, however: Publications, blogs and people on Twitter are going to be hysterical over the pronouncements of the new rule. My suggestion? Ignore them.  The hype is designed, in part, on scaring employers into a frenzy.

What to do instead? Employers should view this new overtime rules with a bit of detachment.  Get the facts.  Then, figure out what applies to your business and start work on a plan to meet those requirements.

President Signs New Federal Trade Secrets Act; Added Protection for Employers

Posted in Highlight, Laws and Regulations

Yesterday, President Obama signed the Defend Trade Secrets Act — a broad federal law designed to give companies added protection.  It does not circumvent state law — indeed, where a state law is more protective of the trade secret, it still applies. Nevertheless, it provides a base level of uniformity nationwide.

My colleagues, Pat Fahey and Lee Duval, prepared this summary a few days ago, which I republish here.  But candidly, there are plenty of such summaries out there by nearly every lawfirm.  You can find a whole host of them on LXBN.  If the subject is of interest to you, it’s worth following up with your attorney to get more information about how this statute is likely to impact your particular company.

congressWith the long-awaited passage of the Defend Trade Secrets Act of 2016 (“DTSA”), which amends the Economic Espionage Act, federal law will now provide a civil cause of action for misappropriation of trade secrets.

Prior to the DTSA, the protection of trade secrets was largely a matter of state law and based primarily on the Uniform Trade Secrets Act (“UTSA”).

Most states have adopted a version of UTSA, but variations between states on essential requirements, such as what qualifies as a trade secret, led to the call for a federal body of law that would be more predictable and uniform.

The DTSA does not preempt state laws governing trade secrets, but will allow civil litigants to pursue an additional claim and to bring those claims in federal court.

Litigants will still be able to pursue state law claims for misappropriation of trade secrets, but by filing in federal court, they will now have access to the broad, nationwide discovery permitted by the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and the unique remedies afforded by the new law.

Two provisions of DTSA are particularly noteworthy: the allowance of ex parte seizure orders and certain employee protections.

Ex parte seizure orders – essentially an order from the court permitting the seizure of property to prevent the use or dissemination of the stolen trade secret without notice to the accused wrongdoer – would be permitted in “extraordinary circumstances.”

In the event that a wrongful seizure occurs, the victims will be entitled to damages, including punitive damages upon a showing of bad faith, and attorneys’ fees.

It remains to be seen how courts will interpret the ex parte seizure provisions, including what constitutes a wrongful seizure, and whether or not such requests will be made often by the trade secret owner.

The DTSA also provides certain protections for employees, which includes contractors and consultants.

Specifically, the legislation provides protection for certain “whistleblower” employees, and employers are obligated to inform their employees of these new protections.

For example, if an employee discloses a company’s trade secret in confidence “solely for the purpose of reporting or investigating a suspected violation of law,” that employee is immune from liability under DTSA.

Moreover, going forward, employers who fail to provide their employees with notice of the new immunities could lose the ability to recover punitive damages or attorneys’ fees in an action against an employee.

The notice requirement may be satisfied by an employer “provid[ing] a cross-reference to a policy document provided to the employee that sets forth the employer’s reporting policy for a suspected violation of law.”

In addition, the law prohibits a court from “prevent[ing] a person from entering into an employment relationship” and requires that any conditions placed on the new employment “be based on evidence of threatened misappropriation and not merely on the information the person knows”, which is intended to foster employee mobility and to avoid conflict with state law.

Thus, in states that have authorized the “inevitable disclosure” doctrine as being a sufficient basis to justify a misappropriation of trade secrets claim, it will be imperative that the employer bring state law claims in addition to a DTSA claim.

We strongly recommend that employers take notice of the changes the DTSA makes to existing law.  All employers should review any employee agreement that “governs the use of a trade secret or other confidential information” and provide the requisite notice of the new immunities.

Employers also are encouraged to perform a trade secret audit to identify or inventory and document their claimed trade secrets, the steps that have been implemented to protect those trade secrets from disclosure and the economic value associated with the trade secret.

By taking these steps now, an employer will be in a better position if it finds itself in a dispute regarding the misappropriation of the company’s trade secrets.

Major Modifications to Immigration Programs May Cause Major Headaches

Posted in Highlight, Laws and Regulations

ashleymendoza1eckertToday, I’m delighted to bring you what I hope will be the first of several updates for employers from the immigration law perspective.  One of my newest colleagues, Ashley Mendoza, along with my law partner Brenda Eckert, have been tracking some of the newest rules for employers coming out of the Department of Homeland Security.  These rules will have a particular impact to employers who recruit from the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) areas.  For employers that rely on foreign workers to help supplement their ranks, this is crucial to understand.

But a cautionary note: It’s a bit technical. There’s really no way around that. Immigration laws are just filled with technical requirements. Indeed, that’s one reason why a qualified immigration lawyer is often needed to help employers navigate these rules. Brenda and Ashley are leading the way here at my firm and I thank them for this detailed update.

Yesterday (May 10, 2016), the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”) implemented major modifications to Optional Practical Training (“OPT”) extensions for students on F-1 visas enrolled in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (“STEM”) degree programs.

IMG_7083The new regulations, published at 8 CFR Parts 214.2(f) and 274a, authorize a 24-month STEM OPT extension period, replacing the previous 17-month STEM OPT extension period.

While at first glance, the new STEM OPT extension regulations may seem a cause for celebration, there are a number of added requirements and oversight provisions and, for some U.S. employers, the benefits may not outweigh the burdens.

What is OPT?

OPT is a form of temporary employment available to students holding F-1 visas that directly relates to a student’s program of study. The employment is often paid, and may take place during and/or after completion of the degree program.

The overarching idea is that OPT will afford eligible international students and new graduates the opportunity to gain hands-on practical experience to supplement what they learned during their degree program. Students may be authorized for a total of 12 months of full-time OPT at each educational level (e.g., undergraduate, graduate and post-graduate).

The application process is relatively straight forward. The student must first request approval from his or her designated school official (“DSO”), who will then make a recommendation to the electronic Student and Exchange Visitor and Information System (“SEVIS”) by endorsing a Form I-20.

Thereafter, the student must file the Form I-765, Application for Employment Authorization, supporting documentation, and a filing fee of $380.00 with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (“USCIS”).

The extension & the changes to it

Since 2008, eligible students who graduate with a qualified STEM degree and are presently engaged in a period of approved post-completion OPT may have the option to extend their OPT for a period of 17 months.

This is the existing STEM OPT extension, and this is what the new regulations modify. These changes will affect all parties involved in the STEM OPT extension process. This includes the students and the U.S. employers with whom the students will train during the course of the approved period of STEM OPT.

Not to be forgotten, however, are the DSO’s who perform pivotal work with students behind-the-scenes to recommend them for OPT and extensions and maintain student records in SEVIS.

So, what’s new?

The better question, really, is what isn’t new.

The new regulations provide a comprehensive overhaul to the STEM OPT program.

Continue Reading