The calendar (if not the weather) tells us that fall is almost here. With the change in seasons comes another reminder that the effective date of the U.S. Department of Labor’s new Fair Labor Standards Act “white-collar” overtime exemption regulations is fast approaching.

Effective December 1, new rules that more than double the minimum weekly salary requirement for the FLSA’s white-collar overtime exemptions to $913 will be the law of the land. If an employer cannot show that an employee meets the requirements of one of the exemption tests, that employee will be legally entitled to overtime, and the employer could face significant potential liability for unpaid overtime pay, liquidated damages, and attorneys’ fees.

Now is the time for Pennsylvania employers to consider the following action items:

  • Identify those employees you currently treat as exempt from overtime pay and determine whether their salaries will meet the new threshold of $913 per week (i.e., $47,476 annually).
  • For those employees currently treated as exempt who earn less than $913 per week, consider whether to increase their salaries to meet the new salary requirement or convert the employees to non-exempt status and pay them for overtime worked. This decision will require an in-depth cost/benefit analysis that considers the employee’s pay, the hours worked by the employee, the employer’s ability to record and control or manage the hours worked, and the relative strength of the employer’s position that the employee meets the duties test for one of the exemptions.
  • Review all positions you treat as exempt, regardless of salary, and determine whether you could prove, if challenged, that the employee meets the duties test for one of the exemptions. For most of the FLSA’s white-collar exemptions, an employee can be treated as exempt only if the employee meets both the minimum salary requirement AND the duties test for the exemption. Simply paying a salary, even in excess of $913 per week, is not enough to exempt an employee from overtime pay.
  • Confirm that you are properly tracking all hours worked and calculating the overtime rate for your non-exempt employees. Even though the new regulations do not change the pay rules applicable to non-exempt employees, they likely will increase the number of non-exempt employees you have, making compliance in this area even more critical.

December 1 will be here before we know it, and much work needs to be done by employers to prepare for the changes that take effect on that date. Are you ready?

In yet another reversal of precedent, the National Labor Relations Board has ruled that students who perform work for a university for which they are compensated can form and join labor unions under the National Labor Relations Act.  Key to the Board’s holding was that these students, including teaching assistants and research assistants, were more akin to employees, as opposed to well, students.  Yeah, we know.

Now, the students will have the opportunity to participate in an election to determine if they will be represented by a labor union.  There are some issues that remain unresolved, including who should be considered part of the unit, given the transient nature of these positions.  The Columbia University teaching and research assistants will then have the opportunity to vote in a representational election.

The decision does not come as a surprise to most observers, many of whom believed that the Democratic majority on the Board would take the opportunity to reverse the 2004 Brown University decision, which had held that graduate assistants were primarily students and not employees covered by the Act.  In Columbia University, the Board noted that the Brown decision was not grounded in the language of the Act, because no specific exemption exists under the Act for students.  The Board held that the Brown University decision “deprived an entire category of workers of the protections of the Act.”  To us, this begs the question – are they really workers?

Importantly, the decision applies only to private universities covered by the Act, and not public universities that are governed by state labor law.  Those universities who are covered will need to take proactive steps to evaluate their teaching and research assistants, both graduate and undergraduate.  While for many, the decision may have limited practical impact, it is likely that one or two negative consequences will flow from the decision: there will be fewer opportunities for teaching and research assistants; and/or the cost of tuition will increase.

As the cost of providing health coverage increased over the past fifteen years, many employers began to offer employees cash payments if they “opted out” of coverage.  Some expected that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) would put an end to opt-out incentive programs.  The ACA does not prohibit opt-out payments; however, the IRS recently issued proposed regulations that highlight how the ACA impacts these payments.  The IRS’s proposed regulations recognize two types of opt-out arrangements: a) unconditional opt-out payments; and b) eligible opt-out arrangements. 

Unconditional Opt-Outs.  An “unconditional” opt-out payment offered to an employee for having declined health coverage will be viewed by the IRS as increasing the employee’s required contribution for purposes of determining the affordability of the health plan to which the opt-out payment relates.  This is true regardless of whether the employee enrolls in the plan or elects to opt-out and takes the payment.  Put another way, the cost of coverage to employees for purposes of determining affordability under the ACA must include not only monthly employee contributions, but also the amount of any opt-out payment that is offered to them.  If an opt-out payment incentive increases the total employee cost of coverage above applicable affordability thresholds (9.66% for 2016), the employer may face a pay or play penalty.

Eligible Opt-Out Arrangements.  Employers may avoid the potential affordability problem outlined above by offering an “eligible opt-out arrangement.”  An eligible opt-out arrangement conditions the payment of the incentive on  the employee’s declining coverage and providing, at least annually, reasonable evidence that the employee and his or her “tax family” (those for whom the employee expects to claim a personal exemption) will have minimum essential coverage (other than individual market coverage) during the period covered by the opt-out arrangement.  If the opt-out payment covers a full plan year and the employee’s “tax family” includes a spouse and one child, payment must be conditioned upon reasonable evidence that all three individuals will have coverage for the full year.  Requiring such evidence allows employers to exclude opt-out incentives from the cost of coverage they offer for purposes of calculating affordability.

Effective Dates and Transition  Relief.  The IRS proposed regulations will apply for plan years beginning on or after January 1, 2017.  Although the regulations are in proposed form, employers and plan administrators may rely on them immediately.  Unconditional opt-out arrangements that were adopted before December 16, 2015 may be exempted from the affordability calculation if certain conditions are met.  Similarly, unconditional opt out arrangements that are included in a current collective bargaining agreement (CBA) are exempt from the affordability calculation until the later of (1) the start of the first full plan year after the CBA expires (excluding any CBA extensions on or after December 16, 2015), or (2) the start of the first plan year beginning on or after January 1, 2017.

What To Do Now?  Employers that wish to continue offering opt-out incentive payments may certainly do so under the proposed regulations.  However, it is now important that opt-out payments be structured as an “eligible opt-out arrangement” which clearly conditions payment on sufficient proof of other coverage (other than individual market coverage).  Employers should also be aware that opt-out payments could impact the calculation of non-exempt employee overtime earnings under the Fair Labor Standards Act (regardless of whether the employee opts out and receives payment), unless properly structured. 

In sum, opt-out incentive programs have survived the ACA.  However, employers must be careful in designing these programs or they may run afoul of affordability requirements.  If you have any questions regarding the IRS regulations or this article, please don’t hesitate to contact any member of our Labor & Employment Practice Group.

 

 

Since 2012, the United States Department of Labor (DOL) reports that it has recovered over $40 million in back wages for employees in the oil and gas industry.  Employers in the industry can expect claims to rise as the DOL continues its enforcement initiatives.  The leading cause of back pay awards? Worker misclassification.  The DOL’s nearly 1,100 investigations into the oil and gas industry’s workforce classifications have focused primarily on two areas; independent contractors and white-collar exemptions.

Misclassifying Employees as Independent Contractors

Many employers in the energy sector commonly pay certain types of workers on a per diem or flat rate basis, irrespective of the number of hours that they work.  Oftentimes, these workers are classified as independent contractors and many even enter into independent contractor agreements with their employers.  As many companies in the oil and gas industry have learned the hard way, these factors alone are not enough to establish the existence of an independent contractor relationship.  Instead, there are a number of criteria that must be met in order for a worker to be properly classified as an independent contractor (and lawfully exempt from minimum wage and overtime provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act).  Employees in the energy sector who are misclassified as independent contractors are often entitled to considerable back pay due to the considerable amount of overtime that they work.

Misclassifying Employees as Exempt Based on Job Title

The DOL’s investigations of oil and gas employers also commonly uncovers employees who are misclassified as exempt from minimum wage and overtime requirements under the Fair Labor Standard Act’s white collar exemptions. These employees are frequently and improperly considered by their employers to qualify for the executive, administrative, or professional exemptions in particular.  Employers operate under the inaccurate assumption that these exemptions apply based upon the employees’ job titles which regularly include one or more of the following “buzzwords”: manager, foreman, engineer, technician, and specialist.  As the DOL has made clear, however, job titles are not determinative of exempt status.  Instead, employees’ salary levels and job duties are the true measure of whether they are eligible for these exemptions.

Employers in the oil and gas industry (and in general) are well-advised to ensure proper classification of workers who they consider as independent contractors or as exempt from minimum wage and overtime under a white collar exemption.  In the meantime, the DOL can be expected to continue pursuing its misclassification enforcement initiative.

Employers with more than 100 employees and federal contractors are probably more than familiar with the EEO-1 reporting requirements, but those requirements are about to change. On July 13, 2016, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission published a revised version of a proposed rule to broaden the scope of data collected in the EEO-1 report. Earlier this year, the EEOC issued an initial version of the proposed rule, which would have required additional reporting on each of ten categories of employees and pay information reported by race and gender.  The July 13 version of the rule contained some key changes.

Changes to Proposed Rule

Under the new proposal, the EEOC will require reporting on an employer’s established pay ranges for positions and hours worked. In response to the comments received regarding the initial proposal, the revised proposal proposes moving the due date for filing the required report from September 30, 2017 to March 31, 2018. This change will allow employers to use employee’s W-2 earnings for reporting. Because of the revisions to the proposal, a new 30 day notice and comment period commenced with the release of the new revised proposal in the federal register.

Purpose of Data Collection

EEOC explained that it intends to use pay data for early analysis of discriminatory complaints. Investigators will examine the data for pay disparities and perform statistical analyses, yet to be determined in order to investigate whether compensation discrimination appears likely. EEOC has further stated that it will compare periodic reports on pay disparities by gender and race based on the data. Finally, the agency will use the data to enhance its support for training programs by, among other things, providing supporting evidence for training programs.

What Should I Do Now

EEOC actually pays attention to the comments it receives as is evidenced by the new revised proposed rule. We strongly encourage employers to make comments on the hardships the proposed revised rule would create. EEOC has remained silent on how it will account for the merit based non-discriminatory factors that could lead to differences in pay in the same job category. This is an issue we suggest employers should press heavily in their comments. Tenure, skill sets and even the broad nature of the job categories themselves can be pivotal in determining wage differences. Stay tuned, we will likely see more changes when the final rule is published.

 

A national home health care provider, doing business in York Pennsylvania as Epic Health Services, was recently issued a citation and significant fine by The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in connection with an assault of an employee by a client.

Even a sanitized version of the facts is disturbing. The employer provides health care and therapy services to clients in their homes. One of the employer’s home health workers was sexually assaulted by a client of the employer while working in the client’s home. Prior to this incident, another employee had specifically warned the employer about sexual assaults. In addition, the employer has received numerous prior reports of verbal, physical and sexual assaults directed toward employees, and of a concern that an employee was working in a home where domestic violence occurred.

Following a complaint by the assaulted employee, and resulting investigation, OSHA determined that the employer failed to adequately protect its employees from the dangers of workplace violence. More specifically, OSHA concluded that Epic Health exposed employees to risk of physical assault while provided home health care to clients and support services to family members, without any system in place for reporting or addressing threats or incidents of violence. In its official news release for this case, OSHA stated: “Epic Health Services failed to protect its employee from life-threatening hazards of workplace violence and failed to provide an effective workplace violence prevention program.”

Obviously, the fact that the employer ignored prior employee reports of hazards and the potential for violence at outside work locations (in clients’ homes) was considered significant in terms of OSHA’s conclusion that the employer failed to adequately protect its workers and provide a safe workplace.

As a result, the employer was cited for a “willful” violation for failing to maintain a safe workplace under OSHA’s General Duty Clause, which is a catch-all type provision that is applied when the issue under consideration is not covered by a specific regulation, as well as a second citation for several “other than serious” recordkeeping violations. In addition, the employer was hit with hefty fines totaling $98,000.00 (including the current maximum $70,000 fine for the willful violation plus an additional $28,000 for the recordkeeping violations).

In the primary citation, OSHA also stated a number of suggested abatement measures that the employer was encouraged to implement in an effort to address workplace violence issues and avoid future similar violations, including:

  • A written, comprehensive workplace violence prevention program;
  • A workplace violence hazard assessment and security procedures for each new client;
  • Procedures to control workplace violence such as a worker’s right to refuse to provide services in a clearly hazardous situation without fear of retaliation;
  • A workplace violence training program;
  • Procedures to be taken in the event of a violent incident in the workplace, including incident reports and investigations; and
  • A system for employees to report all instances of workplace violence, regardless of severity.

As with any OSHA citation, Epic Health Services has 15 days to request a conference with OSHA’s area director to discuss the findings and proposed penalties or file a formal contest with before the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission to challenge the findings and penalties.

There are many lessons that the prudent employer can take from this case, including:

  • Always be on the lookout for and continuously assess safety and health risks and hazards in the workplace;
  • Keep your eyes and ears open, and listen to and consider legitimate employee concerns and complaints;
  • Don’t ignore, and apply safety programs to, outside/remote work locations;
  • Address safety risks in a timely manner;
  • Recognize that it’s an employer’s responsibly to assess risks and keep employees safe at work within established standards, even with respect to risks, hazards and dangers created by non-employees/third parties; and
  • Maintain, review and update as necessary appropriate and comprehensive policies and procedures addressing workplace safety.

All employers should be attentive to and serious about workplace safety issues, particularly considering OSHA’s ongoing aggressive enforcement efforts and the potential for significant liability (including that the already substantial maximum penalty amounts are expected to be significantly increased in the near future).   Don’t be the unprepared employer that is faced with the likely unfavorable and costly outcome of an unexpected OSHA investigation. Instead, take a proactive approach, review safety programs and overall OSHA compliance status now – before an investigator is at your door – and significantly reduce your risk of liability.

Please feel free to call any member of our Labor and Employment Law Practice Group if you have any questions about this post and for further guidance regarding OSHA compliance and workplace safety issues.

This post was contributed by Erica Townes, a McNees Summer Associate. Ms. Townes is a rising third year law student at the Widener University Commonwealth Law School and is expected to earn her J.D. in May of 2017.

Recently you’ve noticed that an employee takes FMLA-covered leave the same week every year or always seems to have a medical emergency between Thanksgiving and January 1. Similarly, another employee regularly calls out of work requesting FMLA-covered, coincidentally on Fridays during football season. How can employers prevent this type of FMLA leave abuse? Several courts have addressed this issue.

Generally, employers are free to enforce company policies even with respect to employees on FMLA leave, provided that such policies are consistent with the FMLA.  Specifically, company policies cannot conflict with or diminish rights guaranteed under the FMLA.  Accordingly, the Third Circuit, the court of appeals that covers Pennsylvania, has routinely held that employers do not have to forego enforcement their call-in policies simply because an employee is FLMA eligible.

The Third Circuit has upheld an employer’s right to terminate employees for violating other policies while the employee was out on FMLA leave.  While employees may view these call-in policies as burdensome or intrusive, courts have expressly held that, despite the fact that employees have the right to take FMLA leave, employees do not have the right to be left alone when out on leave.

For example, one employer implemented a policy that required employees out on paid sick leave to stay home unless the employee was tending to a personal matter related to the reason they were on sick leave.  The employer further required employees to notify a hotline upon leaving and returning to their home, and if necessary, a sick leave investigator could call or visit the employee while he or she was out on leave.  In that case, the court held that the policy could be applied to an employee who was using FMLA-covered leave concurrently with paid sick leave, and that such application of the policy did not run afoul of the FMLA because nothing in the FMLA prevents employers from ensuring that employees are not abusing their leave.

In another case, an employee took FMLA and paid sick leave concurrently to have an operation done.  Only a few weeks after the operation, the employer learned that the employee had gone on a trip to Cancun, Mexico with friends, and as a result, the employee was terminated.  The employee brought a claim challenging her discharge under the FMLA.  Ultimately, the court held that the employee was bound by the employer’s sick leave and absenteeism policies, emphasizing that the FMLA, in no way, restricted the employer from preventing FMLA fraud.  As such, the discharge was upheld.

The Third Circuit has also held that an employer may enforce a written policy prohibiting moonlighting, or working part-time for a different employer, while the employee is out on FMLA leave.

The lesson learned from these cases is that employers have the right to safeguard against FMLA leave fraud and abuse.  To that end, employers may implement policies to reduce the fraudulent use of FMLA, so long as such policies do not abrogate rights guaranteed to the employee under the Act.

Practice Pointers

In addition to the policies mentioned above, consider the below practice pointers.

  • Consistency.  When handling FMLA leave, consistency is critical.  Providing an exception to the rule out of sympathy may hurt the employer in the long run as a disgruntled employee will use such exceptions against the employer in the future.  As the old adage goes, no good deed goes unpunished.
  • Records.  Maintain accurate records of FMLA leave so that (1) an employee’s FMLA eligibility can be accurately determined and (2) to identify suspicious patterns of absence.
  • Paid Leave.  Consider requiring employees to use paid leave concurrently with, or even before, FMLA leave. An employee will be less inclined to abuse FMLA leave if he or she has to exhaust their on time.
  • Abuse.  Immediately address employees who violate your policies.  Without doing so, employees may later argue that the employer excused the violation.
  • Seek Advice.  If you are still unsure whether you can enforce a particular policy, seek advice from legal counsel.

 

Since the passage of the Medical Marijuana Act (“MMA”), we have received many questions from employers regarding the MMA’s impact on employment law; one of the most frequent questions being – what do I do if an employee tells me he/she is using medical marijuana? While the answer to this question will partly depend on state regulations that have yet to be issued, for now there are a few things that employers should know and do when confronted with an employee who is using medicinal marijuana:

  1. Recognize that only “certified users” are legally permitted to use medicinal marijuana in Pennsylvania. Only individuals who are “certified” under the MMA are authorized to use medical marijuana in Pennsylvania. Because the regulatory framework to implement the certification process has not been implemented, there presently is no mechanism for individuals in Pennsylvania to become “certified.” Until the regulatory framework is in place and certifications are being issued, any employee who reports that he is using medical marijuana is likely violating the law. Until a certification is issued, the employee is not entitled to the protections contained in the MMA, such as the anti-discrimination provision at §2103(b)(1), which we discussed here.
  1. Understand that the MMA does not require employers to accommodate the use of medical marijuana while the employee is at work. The MMA specifically provides “nothing in this Act shall require an employer to make an accommodation for the use of medical marijuana on the property or premises of any place of employment.” §2103(b)(2). For this reason, it appears employers may implement and/or continue to enforce policies that prevent marijuana use at work or on the employer’s premises, regardless of whether the use is certified under the MMA.
  1. Analyze the employee’s situation in accordance with the ADA. Under current interpretations of the law, it appears that the ADA does not prohibit an employer from discharging an employee who tests positive for marijuana, even if the use was prescribed by a doctor. However, the employee who voluntarily discloses medical marijuana use, because the employee has a disability, may be entitled to protection under the ADA. Accordingly, an employer should engage in an interactive process with the employee to determine whether accommodations are warranted. While we strongly recommend that employers seek guidance from counsel in these situations, the following general steps should be followed in all situations:
  • Ask the employee, in writing, to obtain a letter or report from his/her health care provider identifying the condition for which the medicinal marijuana has been prescribed and how, if at all, the employee’s use of medicinal marijuana will impact or impair the employee’s ability to perform his/her job. Providing a copy of the employee’s job description to the health care provider is a best practice.
  • To the extent the employee’s ability to perform his/her job is impacted by the use of medicinal marijuana, assess whether the employee can perform the essential functions of the job with or without reasonable accommodation. Remember, this is a fact-specific inquiry that should be conducted on a case-by-case basis. For example, if you would normally provide medical leave to an employee temporarily prohibited from performing his job due to the use of prescription drugs, you may be required to do the same for an employee with a prescription for medicinal marijuana.
  • To the extent an employee’s ability to perform his/her job is not impacted by the use of medicinal marijuana, remind the employee that reporting to work “under the influence” and the use of marijuana at work or on the employer’s premises are strictly prohibited.
  • Continue communicating with your employee to fulfill your obligations to interact under the ADA.

Naturally, if you have specific questions about the MMA and its impact on your workplace, please don’t hesitate to call any member of our Labor and Employment Law Practice Group for further guidance. As the Pennsylvania Department of Health begins to implement temporary regulations, we will keep you apprised of further developments.

The United States Department of Labor issued regulations earlier this year finalizing the “Persuader Rule.” Under the new Rule, employers and consultants (including lawyers) would be required to report labor relations advice and services under the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act’s “persuader activity” regulations when such advice and services are offered in the context of union organizing campaigns. Information subject to mandatory reporting under the Persuader Rule includes the identity of the employer, a description of the services rendered to the employer, and the fee arrangement between the employer and consultant/attorney.

The rule was set to become effective on July 1, 2016. Fortunately for employers and management-side labor attorneys everywhere, a United States District Judge in Texas issued a nationwide injunction barring the Department of Labor from enforcing the rule. According to the Judge, the rule obligates attorneys to violate the attorney-client privilege by disclosing clients’ identities, fee arrangements, and the nature of the advice and services provided. The opinion also holds that the Persuader Rule violates employers’ First Amendment rights to free speech and association, as well as their Fifth Amendment Rights to due process.

The decision does not mean that the Persuader Rule is dead, however. The Department of Labor may appeal the District Court’s Decision to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. Alternatively, the Department could elect to scrap the current rule and go back to the drawing board. For now, however, employers and management-side attorneys are not required to comply with the Persuader Rule. We will continue to monitor this issue and report any further developments right here on our blog.