On March 5, 2018, the California Supreme Court changed the test for factoring flat sum bonuses into the overtime rate in Alvarado v. Dart Container Corporation of California, ordering a calculation that will increase the costs of overtime for employers who pay such bonuses. Under the federal formula, an employer must divide an employee’s total weekly pay (including non-discretionary bonuses) by the total number of hours the employee worked in a week to get the regular rate; the employer then must pay time-and-a-half that rate for all overtime hours. But under the Alvarado court’s formula, the employer must divide the total weekly pay by only “the number of nonovertime hours the employee [actually] worked during the pay period.” That smaller divisor will lead to higher overtime rates.
Earlier this month, the Wage and Hour Division of the Department of Labor reissued 17 opinion letters from the Bush administration. The letters provide employers important guidance on a wide-range of issues under the Fair Labor Standards Act.
The reinstatement marks the first publication of opinion letters since the DOL announced last June that it would bring back that form of guidance. The Obama administration had eliminated the practice and withdrawn many existing opinion letters, including many of those reissued this month.
The reinstated letters do not upend any existing laws, but they provide important guidance and a possible safety net to employers facing similar situations. Many of the reinstated letters concerned application of Section 13(a)(1)’s overtime exemption for executive and administrative employees. The letters also discussed whether certain bonuses must be included in the regular rate for purposes of calculating overtime and whether certain on-call time qualified as compensable working hours.
The letters contain a cover letter noting that someone had specifically asked the DOL to reissue that particular opinion letter. Thus, employers who would like to rely on previously withdrawn opinion letters should consider asking the DOL to reissue them under its new policy.
The California Court of Appeals held late last week that a plaintiff does not have standing to pursue California Private Attorneys General Act (PAGA) claims on behalf of the state or other employees once he accepts an offer to settle his individual claims. The court in Kim v. Reins International California, Inc. B278642 (Dec. 29, 2017), held that once the plaintiff accepted the settlement offer, he no longer qualified as an “aggrieved employee” within the meaning of the statute. The case expands the potential impact of offers of judgment in California wage-hour class actions.
The Sixth Circuit yesterday outlined narrow circumstances under which an employer can show good faith reliance on a Department of Labor opinion letter in setting wage-hour policy. In Perry v. Randstad General Partner, No. 16-1010 (6th Cir. Nov. 20, 2017), the Court held the employer did not establish a good faith reliance defense despite undisputed evidence that the employer relied on a 2005 DOL opinion letter in determining that its employees met the administrative exemption of the FLSA. The opinion serves as a note of caution to employers relying on DOL opinion letters for wage-hour policies.
On October 3, 2017, California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law Senate Bill 306, dramatically limiting an employer’s right to defend itself against allegations that it retaliated against an employee for making wage claims. In short, the law makes it far easier for employees and the California Labor Commissioner to obtain injunctive relief in retaliation cases, potentially requiring employers to reinstate discharged employees before an employer can fully defend itself against the allegations. The law takes effect January 1, 2018.
The law allows the Labor Commissioner or an employee to obtain injunctive relief against an employer based on a mere showing that “reasonable cause exists to believe a violation has occurred.” That’s a far lower burden of proof than a court’s typical standard for injunctive relief, which requires a showing that (1) the employee will suffer irreparable harm, (2) the employee will likely succeed on the merits, and (3) the employee’s interests outweigh the employer’s. The law also requires a court considering a request for an injunction to evaluate “the chilling effect on other employees.”
Other features of the new law that restrict employers’ rights include:
- Authorizing the Labor Commissioner to seek injunctive relief before concluding its own investigation;
- Permitting the Labor Commissioner to initiate investigations on its own, “without a complaint,” if the suspected retaliation occurred during the adjudication of a wage claim or a field inspection, or in instances of immigration-related threats;
- Allowing the Labor Commissioner to issue its own citations ordering reinstatement or back pay, without going to court;
- Placing a heavy burden on the employer to challenge Labor Commissioner citations, including requiring the employer to post a bond equal to the total amount of back pay allegedly owed.
Key Takeaways: The new law increases the need for California employers to make careful, well-reasoned, and thoroughly-documented disciplinary and discharge decisions. Notably, when employees make wage claims, they often also simultaneously engage in protected concerted activity under Section 7 of the NLRA. Given the potential overlap between the Labor Commissioner’s jurisdiction and the NLRB’s jurisdiction, employers facing legal action under the new law should consider whether an NLRA preemption defense applies.
On September 21, 2017, a federal district judge rejected a $19.1 Million proposed deal to end a nationwide wage-hour class action against the TGI Friday’s restaurant chain. In Zorrilla v. Carlson Restaurants Inc., 14-cv-2740 (SDNY), a class of nearly 29,000 tipped workers in nine states alleged violations of the FLSA and state wage-hour laws, including that the restaurant improperly took a tip credit, required an unlawful tip pool, and failed to pay spread-of-hours and uniform-related expenses. After more than four years of litigation, the parties reached perhaps the largest wage-hour settlement for the restaurant industry and sought court approval as required under the FLSA.
On August 31, a Texas federal court struck down the Obama-era Department of Labor rule that significantly increased the salary threshold for the white collar exemptions to overtime pay. The court temporarily enjoined the rule in November 2016, and this latest ruling makes that decision final (save for an unlikely appeal).
The court ruled that the DOL “does not have the authority to use a salary-level test that will effectively eliminate the duties test” set forth in the Fair Labor Standards Act.
Notably, new Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta issued a request for information on the DOL’s overtime rules in late July. The request solicited several comments on whether the DOL should update the current $23,660 salary threshold. So while the Texas court’s ruling gives employers some temporary certainty on overtime exemptions, it remains to be seen what the Trump Administration’s DOL will do.
Overtime claims continue to dominate class action filings and cause significant exposure for companies in all industries. In July alone, plaintiffs filed more than 200 class action complaints alleging overtime violations in federal courts across the country (not counting the number also filed in state court). And because courts calculate back wages at time-and-a-half the regular rate, plus liquidated damages and other penalties, overtime mistakes can cause significant damage to a company’s bottom line.
This post kicks off a series for Steptoe’s Labor & Employment blog on the top five overtime pay violations alleged in class action complaints. The first in the series focuses on one of the most common (and most expensive) kinds of overtime blunders: misclassification of employees as exempt.
Today, the Ninth Circuit in Mendoza v. Nordstrom, No. 12-57144, affirmed dismissal of the plaintiffs’ California Private Attorneys General Act (PAGA) claims. The plaintiffs sought to recover from the luxury retailer on behalf of themselves and other employees for violations of California’s day-of-rest rules, Cal. Labor Code §§ 551 and 552. The court rejected the plaintiffs’ arguments that it should remand the case to permit them to name a new PAGA class representative after their underlying claims failed, reasoning that nothing prevented a proper plaintiff from filing a new suit.
The Department of Labor posted its anticipated Request for Information on the 2016 overtime rule. In its post, the DOL stated that it will publish the RFI in the Federal Register tomorrow, July 26. The RFI represents a preliminary step in the rulemaking process to revise the federal overtime rules set by the Obama administration. The RFI seeks comments on whether and how the DOL should set salary minimums, whether the regulations should contain multiple salary levels, and the impacts of the 2016 rule.
Stakeholders have 60 days from publication to submit comments.