Now that Thanksgiving is in the past, it’s time to look forward to the future.

Well, not before getting a recap of everything that transpired in employment law in the last year. Or at least everything that we can fit in an hour long seminar.

The webinar that broke attendance records last year is back again on December 4, 2018 at noon ET.

This year, five employment law bloggers are presenting the “Best-Ever Year-End Employment Law Review that Five Employment Law Bloggers Have Ever Presented” webinar.  Registration is just $25 and it’s eligible for CLE/SHRM/HRCI credit.

All that is needed is to sign up here. 

The presenters this year are:

  • Robin Shea, Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete
  • Kate Bischoff, tHRive Law & Consulting
  • Jon Hyman, Meyers Roman
  • Eric Meyer, FisherBroyles
  • Jeff Nowak, Franczek Radelet
  • Daniel Schwartz, Shipman & Goodwin

Among the topics that you can surely expect to hear about: #MeToo, LGBT discrimination, Data Privacy and Security, Wage & Hour issues, and FMLA.

Be sure to sign up; it promises to be the best ever. (At least until next year.)

Back in 2011, I wondered aloud: Might the impact of new arbitration decisions from the U.S. Supreme Court bring about the end to big wage & hour class actions?

At the time, I said it would be premature.

Seven years later – what’s changed?

Well, as it turns out, wage & hour class actions are not dead. Indeed, based on some statistics, they’re as costly as ever.

Earlier this year, the Workplace Class Action Litigation report noted that just the top ten class action settlements totalled over $2.72 billion in 2017. I’d say the class action is still very much alive and well.

Yet there are still signs on the horizon that employers may be able to fight back a bit on these claims.

Late last month, the Ninth Circuit shot down a potential class action against Uber, on the grounds that the arbitration provision barred class actions.  

It’s a significant victory for the company and highlights a way for companies to push back against the threat of class actions.

But the company may still have another obstacle. According to The Verge, counsel for the Uber drivers, are encouraging the drivers to seek arbitration on an individual basis. Indeed, it is seeking thousands of them.  Consider it the “death by a thousand paper cuts” approach.  Will it work?

Stay tuned.  In the meantime, companies ought to still consider arbitration provisions with class action waivers as I noted earlier this year.

Three years ago, I floated the idea that perhaps an agency could come up with a modest “amnesty” program that would give employers a chance to get into compliance with FLSA laws, without facing the draconian consequences such an admission might entail.

Now, late yesterday, the United States Department of Labor announced its own pilot program doing exactly this. 

It’s being called the “PAID” program (Payroll Audit Independent Determination), and is designed to expedite “resolution of inadvertent overtime and minimum wage violations under the FLSA.”

According to a press release:

Employees will receive 100 percent of the back wages paid, without having to pay any litigation expenses, attorneys’ fees, or other costs that may be applicable to private actions.

The PAID program facilitates resolution of potential violations, without litigation, and ensures employees promptly receive the wages they are owed.  Under this program, the Wage and Hour Division will oversee resolution of the potential violations by assessing the amount of wages due and supervising their payment to employees.

The Division will not impose penalties or liquidated damages to finalize a settlement for employers who choose to participate in the PAID program and proactively work with the Division to fix and resolve their potential compensation errors.

But there will be limits.  Employers who are in litigation or currently under investigation are excluded, for example.  Moreover, it is a one-time use; employers can’t keep coming back under it.  And it will require employers to take other steps as well.

The pilot program is being run nationwide for approximately six months, after which the Department will evaluate the pilot program and consider future options.

Employers and their counsel are going to need to do a crash course to learn about its availability.  Some FAQ are available on the DOL website but there’s still more that needs to be filled in.

It’s clear, for example, that this won’t necessarily prevent a private lawsuit from flowing or from employees who might reject this and seek out their own counsel.

And for employers in Connecticut, a word of extreme caution:  There will still be the issue of STATE law violations that aren’t addressed by this program.

Indeed, when I floated this idea with a CT Department of Labor official years ago, he noted that legislation would have to be written because the CTDOL didn’t have the ability to create such a program.

I will continue to monitor this as well as my firm but if you have any interest in FLSA issues, you’ll want to contact your employment counsel to stay up to date on this very important development.

 

 

  • You have your bread. And milk.  Presumably eggs too.  (Anyone making French Toast this morning?)
  • But do you know the employment law rules that apply for winter storms and classic nor’easters like we have today?
  • I’ve written about it plenty before, but here are three issues you may not have thought about recently.
  1. Reporting Time or Minimum Daily Earnings Guaranteed: Connecticut has a “reporting time” obligation (as do several of our neighboring states). It is contained in various regulations and applies to certain industries like the “mercantile trade”. You should already be aware of this law, but it has particular application in storm situations where people may not work full shifts.

    For example, in Conn. Regs. 31-62-D2(d) for stores, an employer who requests an employee to report to duty shall compensate that employee for a minimum of 4 hours regardless of whether any actual work ends up getting assigned. So if you bring your employees in today only to send them home 30 minutes later, you may be on the hook. For restaurant workers, it is typically a minimum of two hours (Conn. Regs. 31-62-E1)

    Takeaway? For certain industries, be sure to know whether you will need to pay employees for a minimum amount of time if you send them home early from their shift.

  2. Wage Agreements: Also be aware of any wage agreements (collective bargaining agreements mainly) that require you to provide employees with a guaranteed minimum number of work hours. Typically, these will need to be followed.
  3. Hours Worked: Be aware of Connecticut’s “hours worked” regulation found in Conn. Regs. 31-60-11. That regulation says that “all time during which an employee is required to be on call for emergency service at a location designated by the employer shall be considered to be working time” regardless of whether the employee is called to work.

    When an employee is on call, but is simply required to keep employer informed of whereabouts or until contacted by the employer, working time starts when the employee is notified of his assignment and ends when that employee is finished.

As I’ve said before, none of these issues should really be new for an employer in Connecticut. But with this being the first big storm of the season, it’s time to shovel out those policies.

For more on storm-related posts, check out this post here.

There is news in the employment law world beyond sexual harassment.  Arbitration clauses to be exact.

Yesterday, the Second Circuit issued a small, but important decision for employers that will continue to limit FLSA wage & hour claims.

The court ruled that an employee’s FLSA claims in court were barred by the arbitration clause contained in his employment agreement.  While it isn’t the first time, it’s clear logic will be tough to ignore.

(The case, Rodriguez-Depena v. Parts Authority, Inc. et al can be downloaded here.)

For the court, it was not even a close call. The court ruled that the Supreme Court’s pronouncement years ago that age discrimination claims were barred by an arbitration clause controlled.

The court also looked at whether its decision in the Cheeks v. Freeport Pancake House, Inc. – which required oversight of settlements of FLSA claims — precluded arbitration. The court said it did not.

The rationale of Cheeks, however, is assurance of the fairness of a settlement of a claim filed in court, not a guarantee of a judicial forum.

For employers in Connecticut it remains to be seen if the Connecticut Supreme Court will be all in on such a logic for state wage & hour law claims, but the federal endorsement of arbitration provisions provide a strong basis for doing so.

The case is yet another sign that employers have a few options when it comes to FLSA claims.  It has previously held that class action waivers for FLSA claims are also valid.  

Nevertheless, employers should once again consider whether mandatory arbitration provisions are right for their workforce, particularly when combined with class action waivers.  Having such provisions in place could make a big difference in the future.

It never seems to fail; I go on vacation and the Connecticut Supreme Court issues one of the few employment law decisions it issues every year during that week.

Fortunately for all of us, it concerns the fluctuating work week method of overtime computation which most employers in the state consciously either avoid or try not to understand.  (In very basic terms, the formula calculates a pay rate based on the number of hours an employee actually works in a particular weeks.)

I’ve previously discussed the “perils of trying to rely on a fluctuating work week.” As recently as 2012, I said that “while it can provide some benefit for employers, it must be done properly and must not be raised after the fact.”  And I noted way back in 2008 that employers have to jump through a variety of hoops to make sure they are compliant.

Add to this cautionary tale the latest Connecticut Supreme Court case of Williams v. General Nutrition Centers, Inc. 

The court held that overtime pay for retail employees who receive commission cannot be calculated using the federal fluctuating workweek formula.

And beyond that, the court raised two important principles.  

First, it said that Connecticut law does not prohibit the use of the fluctuating method in general. Thus, for most employers and most employees, the use of the fluctuating work week is definitely in play.

Second, and perhaps most critical here, the Court said that Connecticut Department of Labor regulations that govern overtime pay for retail employees do prohibit the use of the fluctuating method for those employees:

By setting forth its own formula for mercantile employers to use when computing overtime pay, one that requires them to divide pay by the usual hours worked to calculate the regular hourly rate, the wage [regulation] leaves no room for an alternative calculation method….The wage order’s command to use a divide by usual hours method therefore precludes use of the fluctuating method’s divide by actual hours method, except, of course, when an employee’s actual hours match his usual hours.

It should be noted as well that while the case concerned retail employees, the regulation at issue applies to all businesses in the “mercantile trade.”

For employers that rely on the fluctuating workweek method of calculating overtime in Connecticut, this case is a good reminder to revisit those practices now to make sure they comply with this new Connecticut case. Seeking the advice of your trusted counsel to look at your particular circumstances is critical given the court’s decision.

Continuing a look back at some “basics” posts you might have missed, back in 2009, I tackled an exemption that may be overlooked when it comes to employment laws.  

Connecticut has a proud history of farms. Many, like Lyman Orchards, have been passed down for many generations. (And if you’ve never visited Lyman Orchards, don’t miss out on their Corn Maze and apple orchards. I visited it recently and highly recommend stopping by.)

For many of these farms, the growing season is short, which is why some of the wage & hour rules for farms are a bit different.  Indeed, overtime rules in Connecticut specifically do not apply to “agricultural” employees.  (Conn. Gen. Stat. Sec. 31-76i(k) is the specific provision if you’re looking for it.)

But what exactly is “agriculture”?

Turns out, it’s probably much broader than you think.  In fact, you have to look elsewhere in the statutes for thatdefinition.  It is found in the very first statute, Conn. Gen. Stat. 1-1(q), which states, in part:

[T]he words “agriculture” and “farming” shall include cultivation of the soil, dairying, forestry, raising or harvesting any agricultural or horticultural commodity, including the raising, shearing, feeding, caring for, training and management of livestock, including horses, bees, poultry, fur-bearing animals and wildlife, and the raising or harvesting of oysters, clams, mussels, other molluscan shellfish or fish; the operation, management, conservation, improvement or maintenance of a farm and its buildings, tools and equipment, or salvaging timber or cleared land of brush or other debris left by a storm, as an incident to such farming operations; the production or harvesting of maple syrup or maple sugar, or any agricultural commodity, including lumber, as an incident to ordinary farming operations or the harvesting of mushrooms, the hatching of poultry, or the construction, operation or maintenance of ditches, canals, reservoirs or waterways used exclusively for farming purposes; handling, planting, drying, packing, packaging, processing, freezing, grading, storing or delivering to storage or to market, or to a carrier for transportation to market, or for direct sale any agricultural or horticultural commodity as an incident to ordinary farming operations, or, in the case of fruits and vegetables, as an incident to the preparation of such fruits or vegetables for market or for direct sale.

So, under this broad definition, everyone from horse breeders, to maple sugar houses (you know about places like the Lamothe Sugar House, right?) to those who freeze blueberries from local farms, are exempt from paying workers overtime.

Thus, whenever agriculture is implicated in your business, be sure to see if the overtime rules actually apply to your workers.

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.

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.

Photo Courtesy Library of Congress c. 1943
Photo Courtesy Library of Congress c. 1943

It’s hard getting excited about joint employment.

In fact, it’s pretty yawn-inducing.  (Seriously, get a cup of coffee before reading this.)

But a few weeks back, the Department of Labor issued some new guidance on the topic that has been making the rounds of the employment law blogs.

Now, you might be asking — what is joint employment? Well, I can dispel with the notion that it has to do with medical marijuana. Rather, the DOL has described two types of relationships and how the administrative interpretation (AI) plays into it:

Horizontal joint employment exists where the employee has employment relationships with two or more employers and the employers are sufficiently associated or related with respect to the employee such that they jointly employ the employee. The analysis focuses on the relationship of the employers to each other. ….

Vertical joint employment exists where the employee has an employment relationship with one employer (typically a staffing agency, subcontractor, labor provider, or other intermediary employer) and the economic realities show that he or she is economically dependent on, and thus employed by, another entity involved in the work. This other employer, who typically contracts with the intermediary employer to receive the benefit of the employee’s labor, would be the potential joint employer. Where there is potential vertical joint employment, the analysis focuses on the economic realities of the working relationship between the employee and the potential joint employer.

For the vast majority of employers, this guidance will have little impact. If you use mainly full or even part time staff, you may not have to worry about joint employer issues — you ARE the employer.

In some industries, like construction, hospitality, agriculture and janitorial work, there could be an impact.  In some instances, a larger firm could be liable if a subcontractor did not pay its employees minimum wage or unemployment benefits.  If you subcontract out a lot of work, the decision is a good reminder to review your agreements and review the tests that a court may use to rule on the issue.

Various law firms have been issuing guidance on this. One alert states:

The issuance of this AI should serve as a reminder to businesses that they need to think carefully about whether they may be viewed as joint employers over workers they do not consider to be their employees, even workers over whom they have little control. If they are likely to be considered joint employers, they need to consider whether they want to take steps to decrease this likelihood. For example, if two closely related entities concurrently make use of the services of certain employees, they may want to consider ending that approach. On the other hand, they may choose to accept the fact that they will be viewed as joint employers, identify the potential risks and liabilities that may result from joint employment, and decide in advance how they intend to minimize and allocate those risks, such as through an indemnification agreement.

Companies involved in intermediary worker engagements (e.g., staffing companies, subcontractors, and other intermediaries) will want to ensure, to the extent feasible, that they are not considered employers of each other’s employees.

I think that’s important to keep in mind.  But remember that this isn’t exactly a new issue. I’ve been talking about joint employer issues for years — it’s just that we’re seeing some more publicity about it now.