President Trump recently signed into law Congress’ $1.3 trillion, 2,232-page omnibus budget bill.  Notably, tucked away on page 2,025 of the bill, Congress amended the Fair Labor Standards Act to address rules affecting tipped employees.  These rules have been a hot topic lately and there is a lot of misinformation floating around.  Here is what you need to know:

To recap, the FLSA requires employers to pay employees the minimum wage, currently $7.25 per hour for most employees.  In the restaurant industry, however, employers are allowed to count up to $5.12 per hour of employees’ tips against their total minimum wage obligation.  In other words, restaurants can pay tipped employees such as servers, bartenders, bussers, and runners as little as $2.13/hour plus customer tips.  The Department of Labor’s rules make it clear that employers cannot take this “tip credit” if the employer uses a tip pooling arrangement where any portion of tips are kept by the house, or if the restaurant requires employees to share tips with managers or employees who do not “customarily and regularly” receive at least $30 per month in tips (e.g., “back of the house” personnel such as cooks, dishwashers, etc.).  These basic rules are still in place.

What was not clear, until now, was whether the FLSA imposes any restrictions on tip pooling arrangements for employers who do not take the tip credit (i.e. pay their employees at least the minimum wage).  In 2011, the Obama administration said yes, tips could never be shared with managers or kitchen staff even if the restaurant paid the servers the full minimum wage and did not take advantage of the tip credit.  In 2017, the Trump administration, and several federal courts, said no, restaurants paying the full minimum wage could do whatever it wanted with customer tips.  The Trump Administration’s 2017 proposed regulation started a process aimed at reversing the Obama Administration’s 2011 regulation.

The 2018 Omnibus Budget Bill settles the tug of war.  Buried deep in the law is an easy-to-overlook provision relating to “Tipped Employees.”  The Tipped Employees provision establishes a compromise and permits tip splitting among and with non-supervisory, non-service employees (such as cooks and dishwashers) where no tip credit is taken. Otherwise, the amendment specifically prohibits employers from requiring employees to share their tips with the employer, including any managers or supervisors, whether or not the employer takes a tip credit. This is significant because it means that an employer can now violate the FLSA through an improper tip pooling arrangement even if it is paying employees the full minimum wage.

Employers who unlawfully keep any portion of an employee’s tips may now be liable to injured employees for the amount of tip credit taken and the amount of the tip unlawfully taken, plus an additional, equal amount as liquidated damages. Furthermore, the amendment authorizes the Secretary of Labor to assess a civil penalty of $1,100 per violation.

Ultimately, Congress’ new amendment means that, for now, employees who are paid at least the minimum wage in cash can be required to share tips with cooks, dishwashers, and other non-management, non-supervisory “back of the house” employees.  When deciding the right tipping strategy, restauranteurs should consult with legal counsel.  Particularly, tip pooling policies should be carefully reviewed with counsel before implementation to ensure compliance with all applicable federal and state requirements.

Please feel free to contact any member of the McNees Wallace & Nurick Labor and Employment Practice Group for assistance with labor and employment law issues and/or if you have any questions regarding this article.

With increasing frequency, when employees sue their employer or former employer, they also name individual managers or the company’s owners as defendants in their suit.  Under federal EEO laws (e.g. Title VII, ADA, ADEA), individuals generally cannot be held liable for acts of discrimination.  However, employment laws such as the FMLA, FLSA and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act do allow for individual liability under some circumstances.  In Abdellmassih v. Mitra OSR (February 28, 2018), the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania addressed whether individuals may be held liable under the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (“COBRA”) for failing to issue required COBRA notices.

Mr. Abdellmassih was terminated from his position at a KFC restaurant and sued his employer under a variety of laws.  He named the co-owners of the company as individual defendants with respect to his claims under several laws, including COBRA.  The basis for his COBRA claim was that he was allegedly never issued a COBRA notice after he lost his health coverage due to the termination of his employment.

COBRA provides that a plan administrator who fails to comply with COBRA’s notice requirements may, at a court’s discretion, be held personally liable for up to $100 per day that the required notice is not provided.  Mr. Abdelmassih argued that his former employer’s co-owners served as the health plan’s administrators and, therefore, should be individually liable for the plan’s failure to issue required COBRA notices.  However, upon reviewing the company’s health insurance brochure, the court noted that the owners were not named anywhere in the document – as plan administrators or otherwise.  Indeed, the brochure merely directed employees to contact a human resources representative if they had questions regarding their COBRA rights.  Since the co-owners were not named in the document, the court found there was no basis to impose individual liability upon them under COBRA.  However, Mr. Abdelmassih’s COBRA claim against the corporate entity remained intact.

The lesson of the Abdelmassih case is simple.  When identifying the “plan administrator” in a plan document or summary plan description, avoid naming individuals.  A general reference to the employer (or third party administrator firm) – or the department with responsibility for plan administration (e.g. human resources) –  is the best way to avoid individual liability situations under COBRA.  A quick check of your company’s plan language on this point may save you (or someone in your company) from significant liability!

The Supreme Court of the United States held today that arbitration agreements, which waive the right to proceed as part of a class or collective action, are enforceable in the employment context. In Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis, the Court held that employment agreements that call for individualized arbitration proceedings to resolve workplace disputes between employers and employees are lawful. Interestingly, the Court’s 5-4 decision was authored by the newest Justice, Justice Gorsuch.

In a series of cases, employees and former employees had asserted that agreements requiring individual arbitration violate the National Labor Relations Act, because the NLRA protects employee rights to proceed in class or collective actions. Although it had previously taken a different position, in 2012, the National Labor Relations Board agreed that arbitration agreements, which waive the right to proceed in class or collective actions, violate the NLRA. The Board’s controversial position was set forth in D.R. Horton and Murphy Oil USA.

Employers countered that the Federal Arbitration Act expresses a strong preference for arbitration and makes clear that arbitration agreements are presumptively valid. The FAA requires that courts enforce arbitration agreements, including procedural terms related to the arbitration process itself. The FAA does provide that arbitration agreements will not be enforced if there is a legal basis to set aside the agreement, such as fraud or duress in the making of the contract. However, in this case, the only argument presented was that the individual arbitration agreements violate the NLRA.

The Supreme Court rejected that contention. Ultimately, a slim majority of the Supreme Court agreed with the employers and held that the FAA requires enforcement of arbitration agreements, including agreements that call for individual proceedings, because such agreements do not violate NLRA. The Court noted that in order for a law such as the NLRA to trump the FAA, there must be a clear statement of intention in the law. The Court found no such clear intention in the NLRA.

The Supreme Court’s decision is the law of the land, and that means that arbitration agreements in the employment context that require individualized claims are lawful. Employers looking to update their employment agreements in light of this decision can reach out to any member of the McNees Labor and Employment Group. In addition, if you are thinking about implementing arbitration requirements for the first time, we can help.

It appears that a number of labor unions are planning for the potential negative impact of a big decision regarding fair share fees.  We have heard from several public sector clients who have been contacted directly, or who have had employees contacted, by labor unions about the potential impact of Janus v. AFSCME Council 31, which is currently pending before the United States Supreme Court.  The case, which could ultimately declare fair share fees unlawful, is expected to be released before the end of June of 2018.

Based on what we have read from these unions, they seem to believe that there is a good chance that the Supreme Court will declare fair share fees unconstitutional.

As a reminder, fair share fees are fees that are required to be paid by bargaining unit employees who elect not to be full-fledged union members.  By operation of state law, employees who are in the bargaining unit but who elect not to be union members are forced to pay “fair share” fees in many states, including Pennsylvania.  These fees are often a large percentage of the actual cost of union membership.

Public sector employees have raised multiple challenges to the constitutionality of fair share fees.  Specifically, a number of public sector employees have alleged that such fees violate employee First Amendment Rights.  We wrote about one such challenge here.  That decision, Harris v. Quinn, was highly critical of fair share fees, and the underlying justification for requiring fair share fees.  Harris closely examined the precedent that initially determined that such fees were lawful, which concluded the goals of limiting or eliminating “free riding” and the promotion of labor peace overrode any impact on employee First Amendment rights.

While it was highly critical of these stated goals, the Harris Court came just short of declaring all fair share fees unconstitutional.  A subsequent challenge to fair share fees that also reached the Supreme Court case also fell short of declaring the fees unlawful.

Enter Janus.  Janus is a public employee and member of a bargaining unit, but not a member of the union.  He has been forced to pay fair share fees for some time. Janus has argued that the union engages in certain activities that he does not support, and that the union uses his fair share fees to engage in such conduct.  Essentially, he does not support any of the union’s activities, and he believes it is unfair that he is forced to pay them to engage in such activities.  Janus wants to be able to opt out of paying any fees to the union.  Janus argues that forced fair share payments to a union he does not support is “compelled speech” in violation of his First Amendment rights.

Janus is currently pending before SCOTUS, and many believe that the Court finally has the votes to declare fair share fees unconstitutional.  Based on what we have seen, it appears that at least some labor unions agree.

Some observers believe that the elimination of fair share fees will significantly weaken the political clout of public sector labor unions.  We should soon know the fate of fair share fees generally, as the Janus decision is expected in the near future.  However, if fair share fees are declared unconstitutional, only time will tell what impact, if any, the elimination of fair share fees would have on public sector labor unions.

Stay tuned, we will keep you posted.

For several years we have been providing updates on the Obama-era National Labor Relations Board’s rather employer-unfriendly joint employer standard.  We have yet another. We believe the final episode in this saga should be good news for employers.  We’re just not sure whether the good news will come from the Courts, from the regulatory process, or both.

This may be hard to follow, but stay with us…

To recap, in 2015, the Obama Board issued a decision in Browning-Ferris Industries of California, and vastly expanded the situations in which a franchisor or a source employer could be deemed a joint employer with its franchisee or with a supplier of a contingent workforce.  All that needed to be shown under this new standard was some reserved ability by the franchisor or source employer to potentially control the terms and conditions of the other entity’s employees. To the relief of employers, Browning-Ferris quickly appealed this decision to the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

As we reported in the Spring of 2017, the Board’s new standard appeared to receive a cool reception from the Court of Appeals during oral argument. We waited and waited, but no opinion came from the Court.

Then, in December 2017, the Trump Board decided Hy-Brand Industrial Contractors, and announced that it would return to the prior standard that required proof of a joint employer’s actual exercise of control over essential employment terms, rather than merely having reserved the right to exercise control. After Hy-Brand was issued, Browning-Ferris was no longer relevant, so the Court of Appeals remanded that appeal back to the Board.  All appeared to be right in the world.

Alas, this return to normalcy was short-lived.  In late February 2018, the Board issued an Order vacating Hy-Brand based on a determination by the Board’s Ethics Official that one of the three Members who participated in the matter should have been disqualified. With that disqualification no Board quorum existed.  So, what next?  The Board asks the Court of Appeals for a “do-over”: please recall Browning-Ferris and issue a decision. Please?!

On April 6, a divided Court of Appeals granted the Board’s request and recalled Browning-Ferris, and just like 2017, we again await that appellate decision.

But hold on.  There’s more.  Yesterday the Board announced that it is considering rulemaking to address the standard for determining joint-employer status. That would be actual regulations, folks. New Board Chair John Ring’s comments accompanying the announcement are telling: “Whether one business is the joint employer of another business’s employees is one of the most critical issues in labor law today. The current uncertainty over the standard to be applied…undermines employers’ willingness to create jobs and expand business opportunities. In my view, notice-and-comment rulemaking offers the best vehicle to fully consider all views on what the standard ought to be.”

So, stay tuned for more news.  We know it’s coming.  Just not sure which channel will air it first.

Today, the United States Supreme Court has finally put to rest the issue of whether service advisors are exempt from the overtime compensation requirements of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).  You may recall an earlier post, discussing the law’s ambiguity in how auto dealers should classify service advisors under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).  It is an issue that has been before the Supreme Court twice now and a decision to clarify the standard has been much anticipated by auto dealerships across the country.

As a recap, the plaintiffs in Encino Motor Cars were current and former service advisors of a Mercedes-Benz dealership in California.  The service advisors sued the dealership for backpay, alleging that the dealership failed to pay them overtime compensation under the FLSA.  The dealership moved to dismiss the complaint, arguing that the service advisors were exempt from overtime under an FLSA exemption that applies to “any salesman, partsman, or mechanic primarily engaged in selling or servicing automobiles, trucks, or farm implements.”

In a 5-4 decision, the Court found that auto service advisors are exempt under the FLSA’s overtime provisions because they are salesmen primarily engaged in servicing automobiles.  Specifically, the Court found that while the term salesman is not defined under the FLSA, it could be defined as “someone who sells goods or services.”  Because service advisors sell customers services for their vehicles, Justice Thomas, authoring the opinion, found that “a service advisor is obviously a ‘salesman.’”

The Court also found that service advisors are primarily engaged in servicing automobiles.  In particular, the court found that they “meet customers; listen to their concerns about their cars; suggest repair and maintenance services; sell new accessories or replacement parts; record service orders; follow up with customers as the services are performed (for instance, if new problems are discovered); and explain the repair and maintenance work when customers return for their vehicles.”  Notably, the Court found that “if you ask the average customer who services his car, the primary, and perhaps only, person he is likely to identify is his service advisor.”  For these reasons, the Court concluded that the service advisors are exempt from overtime compensation.

Please feel free to contact any member of the McNees Wallace & Nurick Labor and Employment Practice Group for assistance with labor and employment law issues and/or if you have any questions regarding this article.

Winter is coming…still.  Some parts of the state are expected to receive possible snow squalls as well as a potential rain/snow storm in the weeks to come.  Weather conditions such as these often create challenges with business closures and employee absences.  With that in mind, employers should consider the following issues that may arise due to inclement weather:

Are employers required to pay employees when the business is closed because of inclement weather?

If weather conditions cause an employer to shut down operations and close, non-exempt employees need not be paid for time they did not work because of the closing. On the other hand, exempt employees must be paid their salary for the week regardless of the business closure.  An employer may require that exempt employees use accrued paid time off (PTO).

Must employees be paid if they do not report to work due to inclement weather when the business is open?

Non-exempt employees need not be paid for the time they are absent from work.  An employer may, however, at its discretion, allow non-exempt employees to use PTO for the absence. Additionally, exempt employees need not be paid for a whole day’s absence due to inclement weather. An exempt employee absent for part of a day may be required to use accrued paid time off.  If the exempt employee has no accrued paid time off, however, his or her salary may not be docked for a partial day absence.

May an employee be disciplined or discharged for failing to report to work due to weather conditions when the business is open?

Generally, an employer may apply its normal attendance policy to weather related absences. However, there is one major exception. Under Pennsylvania law, an employer may not discipline or discharge an employee who fails to report to work due to the closure of the roads in the county of the employer’s place of business or the county of the employee’s residence, if the road closure is the result of a state of emergency. The law does not apply to the following jobs: drivers of emergency vehicles, essential corrections personnel, police, emergency service personnel, hospital and nursing home staffs, pharmacists, essential health care professionals, public utility personnel, employees of radio or television stations engaged in the gathering and dissemination of news, road crews and oil and milk delivery personnel.

Ultimately, to avoid confusion about how weather-related closures and absences will be handled, employers should have a written inclement weather policy in their employee handbooks.  The policy should be clear that employee safety is the main concern.  The policy should also be clear as to the employees’ responsibility to give notice if they cannot make it to work due to bad weather.

Please feel free to contact any member of the McNees Wallace & Nurick Labor and Employment Practice Group for assistance with labor and employment law issues and/or if you have any questions regarding this article.

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals has held that discrimination against transgender/LBGTQ employees is discrimination on the basis of sex that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc.  Moreover, the court held that the employer could not use the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) as a defense to justify such discrimination.

The Plaintiff began work as a funeral director and presented as a male (birth sex).  Eventually, Plaintiff informed the funeral home that she had a gender identity disorder and would transition to female.  Plaintiff was fired when she informed the funeral home she was no longer going to present as a male and would transition and dress as a female.  The funeral home contended that continued employment would harm its business clients and violated the funeral home’s owner’s Christian beliefs.

The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed suit under Title VII alleging unlawful discrimination on the basis of sex.  The funeral home owner defended the termination under the RFRA.  The RFRA prohibits enforcement of a religiously neutral law that substantially burdens religious exercise, unless the law is the least restrictive way to further a compelling government interest.

The district court held that Plaintiff was discriminated against based upon sex stereotypes, but held the EEOC could not enforce a Title VII claim because it would burden the employer’s exercise of religion in violation of the RFRA.  The court granted summary judgment to the funeral home.

The Sixth Circuit reversed and held that Title VII prohibits discrimination on the basis of LGBTQ status.  Perhaps more importantly, the court held that the funeral home was not entitled to a RFRA defense on the ground that continuing Stephens’ employment would not, as a matter of law, burden the employer’s exercise of religion and, even if it did, the EEOC had established that enforcing Title VII is the least restrictive means of furthering the EEOC’s compelling interest in combating and eradicating sex discrimination.

The first cases addressing the impact of Pennsylvania’s Construction Workplace Misclassification Act (“CWMA”) in the context of the Pennsylvania’s Workers’ Compensation Act, have finally reached the Appellate Courts. The CWMA, which became effective on February 10, 2011, imposes criminal and administrative penalties for the misclassification of employees as “independent contractors” at commercial and residential construction sites in Pennsylvania. “Construction” is broadly defined to include “erection, reconstruction, demolition, alteration, modification, custom fabrication, building assembly, site prep and repair work,” at both residential and commercial sites.

The CWMA details a multi-prong test for determining whether a worker is an “employee” or “independent contractor” for purposes of the Act:

  1. The individual must have written contract to perform such services;
  2. The individual must be free from control or direction over the performance of such services, both by contract and in fact;
  3. The individual must be customarily engaged in an independently established trade, occupation, profession or business, with a business location separate from the location of the person for whom services are being performed; and
  4. The individual must maintain liability insurance during the term of the contract of at least $50,000.

What had been unclear for some time, was whether the formal requirements of the CWMA would supplant the common law definition of “employee” under the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act, which had focused primarily on a traditional “direction and control test” for distinguishing between independent contractors and employees. This issue was recently addressed in D & R Construction v WCAB. The Commonwealth Court in D & R Construction ruled that, for injuries occurring at construction sites on or after February 10, 2011, the injured worker will be deemed an employee, unless all of the mandatory criteria are in place for a finding of independent contractor status, pursuant to the CWMA. Additionally, all criteria should be given equal weight by the WC Judge, and if any one is absent, the injured worker will be deemed to be an “employee” of the business entity requesting the services.

In light of this ruling and pending clarification by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, it is critically important that employers utilizing subcontractors at Pennsylvania residential and commercial project sites, make sure that such subcontractors and their employees meet the definition of “independent contractors” under the CWMA and are properly insured for both liability and workers’ compensation. Contractual indemnification language may also be advantageous, in the event of an unexpected construction site injury or claim.

For further information on construction site injuries or guidance, please contact Micah Saul, Denise Elliott, or Paul Clouser in the Lancaster office.

What should a Pennsylvania employer do when an employee seeks workers’ compensation benefits after injuring himself by engaging in risky behavior at work?  Companies may be tempted to take the position that workers’ compensation isn’t available to workers who hurt themselves by intentionally doing dangerous things on the job.  Recently, however, the Commonwealth Court found that Pennsylvania’s Workers’ Compensation Act requires a more nuanced analysis.

In Wilgro Services, Inc. v. WCAB, the claimant was employed as an HVAC technician.  He was assigned to work on air conditioning equipment located on a customer’s roof.  Several co-workers were performing other jobs on the customer’s roof at the same time.  Unfortunately for the claimant, they finished their work before he finished his.  Not realizing that claimant was still working, the other employees removed the ladder that was used to access the roof and left the job site.

The claimant was left stranded on the roof, with no apparent way down.  Eventually, he decided that his best option was to jump to the ground 20 feet below.  His flight of fancy did not end well.  The claimant sustained severe injuries to his feet and back.

The employer denied the claimant’s application for workers’ compensation benefits.  It reasoned that by jumping from the roof, he abandoned his employment.  The employer argued that such conduct was not among the claimant’s job duties and his leap from the roof did nothing to further the company’s interests.  The case eventually made its way to the Commonwealth Court on appeal.

The Commonwealth Court ultimately disagreed with the company’s arguments.  Instead, it determined that leaving the work site was a necessary element of any job, including the claimant’s.  Since a ladder was not readily available and because claimant jumped from the roof in a legitimate (but perhaps foolish) attempt to leave work, the Court found that his actions were not so far removed from his usual employment as to constitute departure from his job duties.  Thus, he was entitled to workers’ compensation benefits.

In reaching its decision, the Commonwealth Court analyzed a similar case that resulted in a different outcome.  In Penn State University v. WCAB, an employee was on his lunch break when he decided to jump down a flight of stairs on a whim for his own amusement.  He too was injured.  Unlike the Wilgro claimant, however, this employee was not entitled to workers’ compensation benefits.

The Commonwealth Court determined that although work injuries that occur during an employee’s on-premises lunch break are generally compensable unless they’re engaged in activity wholly foreign to the employer’s business.  Jumping down a flight of stairs on a lark, the Court held, was an extreme, high-risk action that sufficiently removed the employee from the course and scope of his employment.

So, if an employee is injured when intentionally engaging in high-risk conduct that is not overtly work-related, employers should assess all the facts and circumstances at hand before deciding whether to accept the claim.  In cases where an employee had some work-related reason to perform the dangerous act, they could be entitled to workers’ compensation benefits.