My colleague, Gabe Jiran, returns the blog today with this quick post updating us on where things stand on the DOL’s proposed changes to the overtime rules (and providing me with an excuse to link to one of the few songs to mention “overtime” in the title.)

As you may recall from some of the prior posts here, employers scrambled to address the Department of Labor’s changes to the salary threshold for white collar exemptions under the Fair Labor Standards Act.  That change would have increased the salary threshold from $23,360 to $47,476 annually in December, 2016.

However, several states challenged this increase, resulting in a federal court in Texas issuing a nationwide injunction stalling the increase.  Of course, many employers had already made changes to address the increase, but the injunction still stands.

Then the election happened. Which changed everything.

Now, the DOL under the new Trump administration has indicated that it will not advocate for a specific salary level under its regulations, but will instead gather information about the appropriate salary levels.

The DOL has thus issued a request for information to get feedback, which can be accessed here.

What does this mean for employers? While this process will most likely result in an increase in the salary levels, it seems that the DOL will do so based on responses to its request for information rather than arbitrarily setting a salary level.

For now, employers should continue to follow the current regulations and the $23,360 salary level while, of course, also following the Connecticut guidelines where applicable too.

But stay tuned here: Developments in this area now seem on the way.

If at first you succeed, try it again. 

Well, that may not be how the saying goes, but the first back-and-forth post between me and Nina Pirrotti, an employee-side attorney, was so well received that we’re back for another conversation. 

Today’s topic: What legislation are we both keeping our eyes out for at the Connecticut General Assembly?  

The Dialogue Begins

Dan Schwartz: So Nina, our first post was such a hit that I think we’re due for an encore.  Thanks for being up for this.

It has only bewn a few weeks, but it feels like we’re moving at warp speed on developments.  We could spend another post just on The Donald, sorry, Mr. President. Somehow I think we’re likely to talk about that again soon.

But let’s focus today on some of the legislative items we’re keeping an eye on, particularly in Connecticut. Each year, it seems like our General Assembly likes to roll out fresh employment law ideas.

Is there a particular bill that you’re keeping your eye on now from an employee-side perspective?

nina_t_pirrotti1-150x150Nina Pirrotti: I’m so glad you asked!   Yes, let me tell you about one bill that has been on my mind on the federal level (I am speaking about it at an ABA conference in sunny Puerto Vallarta really soon) and then I will give you a couple of highlights from our backyard.  

The federal bill that looms large for me right now (although concededly perhaps not as large as the prospect of sitting on the beach, tequila based beverage in hand) is the misleadingly named  Lawsuit Abuse Reduction Act (“LARA”) which would force judges to respond to Rule 11 motions in a particular manner. 

Rule 11 allows for the possibility of sanctions to be imposed on attorneys or parties who submit (or later advocate for) pleadings which have been filed for an improper purpose or which contain frivolous arguments or claims. 

While Rule 11 motions rear their ugly heads relatively rarely in litigation, a newly invigorated Republican majority in Congress has proposed LARA which would amend the sanctions provisions in Rule 11 to remove all judicial discretion – – regardless of the circumstances of the individual case- – in two critical respects. 

First it would require the court to sanction any attorney, law firm, or party who violates the rule.  Second it forces judges who find the rule has been violated to order the offending party to pay  the other party’s attorneys’ fees and costs.  Those in my world who oppose LARA say that there is no proof Rule 11 is not working in its current form, that the changes would burden the courts and that  its “once size fits all” mandatory sanctions would unfairly penalize employees in civil lawsuits.

Closer to home, two bills come to mind.  The first is a proposed modification of C.G.S.A. 31-51m, a statute which bars employers from retaliating against employees who report  employers’ unethical or legal wrongdoings to public bodies. 

The modification seeks to  protect employees who complain about such conduct internally or who refuse to participate in an activity they believe to be in violation of the law.   It also seeks to extend the timeline to bring an action under the law (employees now have only 90 days to file) and to provide for a greater array of damages if the employer violates the statute.

The second is a proposal to provide eligible employees with paid Family and Medical Leave Act leave.  The proposed legislation would require employees to contribute 1/2 of 1% of their wages to it (there would be no employer contribution) and employees cannot opt out it.   

We plaintiff employment lawyers would welcome both pieces of legislation as long overdue and reasonably tailored to protect Connecticut’s workforce.

What are your thoughts from the other side of the aisle, Dan?    Or is there other proposed legislation that has captured your attention?

Continue Reading The Dialogue: What Legislation We’re Keeping Our Eyes On

As I continue to reflect this week on nine years of blogging, it’s hard to recall that I started this before the Great Recession hit.  Since that time, all businesses have become more cost-conscious and creative in how they are structured and how they compensate their employees.  Non-profit organizations are no exception to that.  But how can these workplaces continue to “do good” while rewarding their employees?

Today, I’m pleased to share this post from Marc Kroll, Managing Partner at Comp360 LLC.  Marc talks total about how non-profits can implement a “Total Rewards” strategy and earn a return on their investment. 

And what is “Total Rewards”? As the Houston Chronicle described it in a recent article: “Formerly referred to as simply compensation and benefits, total rewards takes on a more creative and broad definition of the ways employees receive compensation, benefits, perks and other valuable options. Total rewards include everything the employee perceives to be of value resulting from the employment relationship.”

Having a well-thought out compensation system is a key component to reducing liability and, hopefully, ensuring happy, productive employees.  If you’re looking for ways to avoid dealing with employment lawyers on issues, getting ahead of issues like this is a natural step in the right direction.  My thanks to Marc for his insights.  

Kroll_MarcAs a result of the slow growth economy, non-profit organizations are facing decreased funding due to federal and states’ fiscal deficits as well as a significant shift with grant-makers who are increasingly funding awards on a performance/return on investment basis.  In addition, the soaring costs of healthcare insurance are adding significant pressure to operating costs.

Without new revenue growth, many non-profits are looking for ways to measure and increase the value/return on their social mission and investments.

Consistent with these changes, some non-profits are responding by trying to increase the “return” on their services and programs in terms of program execution, utilization, and measurable results.  Given this environment, non-profits are being forced to examine the viability of their highest cost centers, most particularly, employee compensation and benefits for value against performance as well as market competitiveness.

Non-profit Boards and senior management are questioning what the appropriate compensation and benefit programs should be, at what levels they should be funded, and how to drive accountability and performance in the employee workforce.

While non-profit organizations have predominantly been about social service and charity with their cultures reflecting a “do-good” environment and a concern for employee welfare, present conditions have forced many to consider a culture shift toward performance and accountability as well as changes in their Total Rewards programs.  This delicate balancing act between affordability and the ability to attract and retain a stable and talented workforce presents challenges in nonprofits’ capacity to assure effective organizational culture, management practices, labor market relevance, and strategic/operational priorities.

To help navigate this challenge, the following insights to six key questions provide a prescription for change in Total Rewards:

  1. What should your Total Rewards strategy be?

This is a statement developed by your Board or management committee on how the organization’s compensation and benefits programs will support and relate to your operational objectives, culture, management practices, and employee performance.  It also describes both the labor market within which the organization wishes to compete and the level at which both compensation and benefit programs will be set and funded.

Continue Reading Guest Post: Getting The Most Out of Employees At Non-Profit Organizations – A “Total Rewards” Strategy

Well, it was bound to happen.  After nine years of writing the blog on a near daily schedule, some work and personal commitments interfered with my blog writing schedule. But never fear, more new posts from me are now right around the corner.

In the meantime, one of our summer associates, James Joyce, joins the blog today to give an update on a a law passed last year regarding pay secrecy. My thanks to James for his work on this.  James is finishing up his law degree at University of Connecticut.  

joyceLoyal readers may recall that about a year ago, Connecticut’s “Act Concerning Pay Equity and Fairness” Public Act 15-196, became law.   Dan has already blogged about the nuts and bolts of the “Pay Secrecy Bill” and its potential impact on employers.

And, as Dan highlighted, employers need to be mindful of this legislation because it created a private cause of action in court for any violation.  That is where today’s post comes into the picture.

One of the first lawsuits alleging violations of the “Pay Secrecy Bill” was recently filed in Superior Court in Stamford (the case has since been removed to Federal District Court).   The lawsuit raises other issues as well, but for today’s post, we’ll focus on the “Pay Secrecy” claim.

So what’s in this lawsuit? Well, the plaintiff alleges that her former employer maintained a “Pay Secrecy Policy” forbidding employees from discussing their salaries despite the enactment of the “Pay Secrecy Bill” in July 2015.

Specifically, the allegations include a run-in with the human resources (HR) department due to comments the Plaintiff made about salaries and her former employer’s view that this was inappropriate and none of the plaintiff’s business.  The plaintiff received an “Employee Warning Notice” from HR and HR went on to tell the plaintiff she could not discuss her wages or her co-workers’ wages.

Additionally, in February 2016, it is alleged that a former co-worker of the plaintiff was reprimanded for a conversation she had with another employee about the company’s paid time off/holiday policy.  The former co-worker was allegedly told directly by the CEO and by HR that this conversation or any similar conversations violated the company’s policy prohibiting employees from discussing compensation with other employees

Obviously, whether or not these facts are true — or rise to a level of violating the law — will play out in court.  But these types of incidents are just the sort of things that employers need to be aware of to avoid “Pay Secrecy” violations.  The law prohibits employers from implementing policies that prevent employees from, or disciplining employees for, engaging in conversations about salary-related information.

Because this case was recently filed there is no way to predict how the court will rule.  Nevertheless, that does not mean this case should be ignored until it is decided.  Employers should remind their human resources staff and managers of this new Connecticut law.

The downside will be cases like this where the employer may have to spend time and money investigating and defending themselves against the alleged “Pay Secrecy” violations.  Employers also risk being found liable for compensatory damages, attorney’s fees and costs, punitive damages, and any legal and equitable relief the court deems just and proper related to the alleged violations.

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.

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.

GA2It’s been a long-time coming but the General Assembly finally approved of a measure that would allow employers to pay employees on a bi-weekly basis without receiving prior CTDOL approval.

The provision, part of a set of “technical” revisions to various Department of Labor matters, is long overdue.

Several employers had moved to a bi-weekly payroll scheme without realizing that they needed approval from the CTDOL beforehand.  That approval won’t be required anymore (assuming this bill is approved by the governor).

I’ve previously discussed the requirement so now employers who have been wary about seeking such approval, can just move ahead on their own.

Senate Bill 220 also makes lots of technical changes to the unemployment compensation scheme and even to drug testing (getting rid of the suggesting that the DOL develop some regulations in this area).  These probably won’t be of interest to most employers, but it’s worth a look through the bill summary to see if something else touches on your industry.

The measure will become effective when the Governor signs the overall bill.  (Other provisions in the bill go into effect October 1, 2016.)

generalassemblyPayroll cards are finally here.

The General Assembly finished their regular session last night with several employment law bills getting passed, including some that have been kicking around for years.

One of them is Senate Bill 211, which authorizes employers to use payroll cards — instead of checks or direct deposit — to pay their employees.

But there are a number of conditions that must be met before this happens and there are a number of restrictions as well.  The bill will become effective October 1, 2016 — assuming the governor signs the measure, which is expected.

The Office of Legislative Research has done a thorough recap, which I’ll liberally borrow from here.

In order to use the card, an employee must “voluntarily and expressly authorize, in writing or electronically, that he or she wishes to be paid with a card without any intimidation, coercion, or fear of discharge or reprisal from the employer. No employer can require payment through a card as a condition of employment or for receiving any benefits or other type of remuneration.”

In addition, as noted by the OLR report:

  1. employers must give employees the option to be paid by check or through direct deposit,
  2. the card must be associated with an ATM network that ensures the availability of a substantial number of in-network ATMs in the state,
  3. employees must be able to make at least three free withdrawals per pay period, and
  4. none of the employer’s costs for using payroll cards can be passed on to employees.

Under the bill, a “payroll card” is a stored value card (similar to a bank account debit card) or other device, but not a gift certificate, that allows an employee to access wages from a payroll card account. The employee can choose to redeem it at multiple unaffiliated merchants or service providers, bank branches, or ATMs. A “payroll card account” is a bank or credit union account (1) established through an employer to transfer an employee’s wages, salary, or other compensation (pay); (2) accessed through a payroll card; and (3) subject to federal consumer protection regulations on electronic fund transfers.

Another big change, according to the OLR report: The bill also allows employers, regardless of how they pay their employees, to provide them with an electronic record of their hours worked, gross earnings, deductions, and net earnings (i.e., pay stub). To do so, the (1) employee must explicitly consent; (2) employer must provide a way for the employee to access and print the record securely, privately, and conveniently; and (3) employer must incorporate reasonable safeguards to protect the confidentiality of the employee’s personal information.

Lastly, current law allows employers to pay employees through direct deposit only on an employee’s written request. The bill allows an employee’s request for direct deposit to also be an electronic request.

An amendment, which also passed, (1) changes the timeframe in which an employer must switch an employee from a payroll card to direct deposit or check; (2) specifies that the limit on fees or interest charged for the first two declined transactions each month applies to calendar months; and (3) requires the cards to be associated with ATM networks that ensure, rather than assure, the availability of in-network ATMs in the state.

Overall, this is a big boost for both employers and employees.  The CBIA had supported the measure and it had received “cautious” support from the AFL-CIO as well.

So, remember back in February where I noted that employers ought to “consider having an attorney review some of your [employment] agreements … [because sometimes,] poor drafting can sometimes be avoided by having an attorney involved”?

We have another appellate court case that emphasizes that point quiet well in Stratford v. Winterbottom.

The case involves a town and one of its employees.  The town gave the employee an employment agreement that stated:

Based upon the annual performance evaluation, and at the [m]ayor’s sole discretion and recommendation, the base salary may be increased on July 1 of each fiscal year, subject to the approval of the [council], which by Charter fixes the salaries of all mayoral appointees.

The issue? The town reduced the employee’s salary.  The question for the Appellate Court was whether the town had permission to do so.

No way, says the Appellate Court.  By including increases but not mentioning decreases, the employer is reading too much into the agreement; it simply does not have the power to do so.

Yes, the court acknowledged, the employee was at-will but that at-will clause was never used by the employer and the employee never consented to the change in salary.

Ken Adams of Adams on Contract Drafting, did a quick post about this from a contract drafting perspective last night after I mentioned it on Twitter.  I recommend the whole post, but here’s the key point:

A grant of discretion to do one thing doesn’t necessarily equal a prohibition against doing other things. If a mother tells her son that he may play video games, it wouldn’t necessarily follow that she’s thereby forbidding him from engaging in any alternative activity.

But the presumption that a grant of discretion doesn’t also entail prohibition comes up against what this manual refers to as “the expectation of relevance.” (Relevance is a principle of linguistics. According to The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, at 38, “A central principle in pragmatics . . . is that the addressee of an utterance will expect it to be relevant, and will normally interpret it on that basis.”) The more specific a grant of discretion is, the more likely it is that the reader would conclude that the discretion is limited—otherwise there would be no point in being so specific. And the more likely a court would be to invoke the arbitrary principle of interpretation expressio unius est exclusio alterius—the expression of one thing implies the exclusion of others.

So, what’s an employer to do? Well, a salary clause can be written in a variety of ways. Consider that the employer may “revise” the salary at any time or “change” it. Or perhaps the employer can be more direct that it may “increase or decrease” the salary based on a variety of factors.  Some employers may choose to avoid discussing it altogether which would be an interesting question of contract interpretation then.

Whatever you choose, make sure the agreement accurately reflects what you intend.  Otherwise, you may not have the discretion to change something that thought was implied.

The New York Times reported this morning that President Obama will ask the United States Department of Labor to revamp its regulations on the so-called “white collar” exemptions to the federal overtime laws.

Specifically, he will direct the DOL “to require overtime pay for several million additional fast-food managers, loan officers, computer technicians and others whom many businesses currently classify as ‘executive or professional’ employees.

The article also suggests that “he will try to change rules that allow employers to define which workers are exempt from receiving overtime based on the kind of work they perform. Under current rules, if an employer declares that an employee’s primary responsibility is executive, such as overseeing a cleanup crew, then that worker can be exempted from overtime.”

As of mid-morning, the order was still not available on the White House’s website but you can check here. 

However, based on the article, it seems that the executive and professional employee exemption would be most directly impacted, but it is unclear what the impact would be on the administrative exemption.

But before you start throwing out your position descriptions just yet, realize that the President’s direction is just the first step in a process, not the last.

The regulations still need to be drafted, proposed and then adopted by the United States Department of Labor. It is certainly possible that further revisions will occur during that process.  The timing of this is still unclear.

For employers in Connecticut, understand that if these new proposals do come into effect, it would provide a new “floor” for wage & hour laws in Connecticut and many employers would have to adopt them, even though Connecticut’s own rules would be different.  As I’ve noted before, when federal law provides more protection to employees than state law, federal law will control. (The vice versa also applies too.)

However, this suggests the most significant change we’ve seen in the wage and hour area in a decade and could potentially open up a new front on the wage & hour class action battles.

So stay tuned.