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Workplace Law Predictions For 2019

January 09 - Posted at 7:15 PM Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Courtesy of Fisher Phillips LLP

2018 has seen quite a few changes in labor and employment law. But with the New Year having just rung in, it’s time to look forward rather than backward. The question on the tip of everyone’s tongue is: what’s next? Here are our predictions for what to expect in 2019 when it comes to workplace law.

Expect More Class Actions

We’re going to start out with the bad news. Because of the potential for a big payout, class and collective actions are a favorite for plaintiffs’ attorneys. You should not expect that to change in 2019.

The California Supreme Court’s decision in Troester v. Starbucks Corporation has opened up even more avenues for potential wage and hour claims in the Golden State, and the trend could hit the rest of the country, too. In July 2018, the California Supreme Court narrowed the scope of the de minimus doctrine under state law and held that employees must be paid for off-the-clock work that regularly lasts several minutes per day. While the California Supreme Court refused to shut the door entirely on the de minimus doctrine, it noted that technological advances should help employers track small bits of time, and that employers can restructure work to avoid off-the-clock time.

Employers outside of California may see plaintiffs’ attorneys attempting to use the same rationale employed by the California Supreme Court to argue that the de minimus doctrine should not apply in the circumstances of their case. Moreover, with more employees having remote access to emails and other mobile platforms, the number of ways for employees to argue that they were working off the clock has increased. 

The Ascendance Of Arbitration Agreements 

One way for employers to avoid class actions is through arbitration agreements. Last May, the Supreme Court ruled in Epic Systems Corporation v. Lewis that mandatory class action waivers in arbitration agreements are enforceable. As a result, you can expect to see an increase in the number of companies rolling out updated agreements to include class action waiver language. (Note: if you have not had your arbitration agreement reviewed since May when Epic Systems came out, make it your New Year’s Resolution to do so.)

However, while popular with employers, arbitration agreements are decidedly not so with the plaintiffs’ bar. Expect to see plaintiffs’ counsel becoming more creative in challenging arbitration agreements on grounds related to unconscionability. 

We may even be starting to see a backlash against arbitration agreements. Most recently, some law students have been pressuring big law firms to do away with them when it comes to their own hires. And last year, the California legislature passed a law banning mandatory employment arbitration agreements for claims arising out of alleged violations of the Fair Employment and Housing Act or California Labor Code. Although the bill was ultimately vetoed by outgoing Governor Jerry Brown, expect to see the fight continue in 2019.

Don’t Look To Congress To Lead The Way

With Democrats controlling the House, and Republicans controlling the Senate and Executive Branch, you can expect that most employment legislation will be dead on arrival. When it comes to innovative legislation impacting the workplace, you should look to the states to lead the way. This is not to say that there won’t be any changes to labor and employment law on the federal level in 2019. However, we expect the most significant changes to be made by agencies (such as the National Labor Relations Board, the Department of Justice, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, etc.) rather than Congress.

NLRB Will Narrow The Definition Of Joint Employer

One of those agencies—the NLRB—made noise last year when it published a proposed rule that would alter the definition of joint employment to make it more difficult to hold multiple businesses responsible for alleged labor and employment law violations by staffing companies, franchisees, and other related organizations. Expect to see continued movement and updates on this proposed rule in 2019. 

But before getting too excited at any potential changes, you should keep in mind that states may have their own rules regarding joint employment that could differ from what the NLRB comes up with. Any new rules may not affect your organization’s liability under state law.

USDOL Has A Full Plate

Another agency you should keep an eye on is the U.S. Department of Labor (USDOL).  Not only is the USDOL considering its own joint employment rule, but the agency has proposed regulations regarding the regular rate of pay and white collar exemptions (also known as the “overtime” rule). 

The regular rate of pay is of particular importance to employers because it is used to calculate the overtime rate of non-exempt employees. While we know that changes to the proposed regulations are targeting sections 7(e)(2) and 7(g)(3) of the Fair Labor Standards Act, the USDOL has been rather vague about what the proposed regulations will look like. The USDOL states that they aim to “provide employers more flexibility in the compensation and benefits packages they offer employees” and “lessen litigation regarding the regular rate.”   

The regulation relating to the white collar exemption is less opaque. As employers may recall, the minimum salary threshold for white collar exemptions was supposed to increase from $455 per week (or $23,660 annually) to $913 per week (or $47,476 annually), with the amount to be updated every three years. However, right before these changes were scheduled to take effect in December 2016, a federal court blocked their implementation. Under a new administration, we expect that we will see a more modest proposed increase in the white collar exemption in 2019—perhaps in the low $600s per week. 

Paid Sick Leave Will Continue To Be On Trend

Although there are no federal laws mandating paid sick leave (yet), you can expect that paid sick and family leave will continue to be a big issues, with states and localities picking up the slack. Right now, 11 states and the District of Columbia require paid sick leave. Additionally, various cities and counties have stepped in where states have not provided for such leave or to give more generous benefits than the state. 

You generally should anticipate an expansion of paid sick leave benefits in 2019. The New Jersey Paid Sick Leave Act went into effect October, while Michigan, Washington, and Westchester County (NY) have paid sick leave laws going into effect this year. 

While some municipalities in Texas want to get in on this trend, a Texas appeals courtruled the Austin Paid Sick Leave Ordinance violates the state constitution because it preempts the Texas Minimum Wage Act. San Antonio passed its own sick leave ordinance in 2018, but it may only be a matter of time before it, too, is challenged in court. 

Privacy Issues Remain Paramount

The EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) went into effect in May 2018, ushering in sweeping reforms for companies that do business in the EU or employ EU residents. The GDPR threatens strict penalties for non-compliance—up to the greater of 20 million Euro or 4 percent of global annual turnover in the prior year. Having been in effect less than a year, it is still not clear how fines will be assessed and what the potential exposure will be for companies that are found to be non-compliant. As 2019 progresses, you can expect to see many investigations that began in 2018 come to a close, and we’ll begin to get a better idea of how regulatory authorities will assess fines for non-compliance—including whether the fearsome 4 percent penalty will be assessed.   

Lest you think the major developments in privacy are safely across the ocean in Europe, you can be sure there will be plenty of action closer to home in 2019. The Illinois Supreme Court currently has a case before it over whether a technical violation of the Illinois Biometric Information Act (BIPA) gives standing to sue absent a person suffering a concrete injury. If the court answers in the affirmative, you can expect to see a continued proliferation of BIPA class actions.

Further, California passed the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) in 2018, which goes into effect at the beginning of 2020. While the law is not as comprehensive as the GDPR, California employers will soon need to figure out this year if it applies to them. You should take compliance seriously: the CCPA allows consumers whose rights have been violated under the Act to bring suit for actual damages or statutory penalties (whichever is greater) under a mechanism somewhat akin to a California Labor Code Private Attorneys General Act. You can expect the proliferation of CCPA lawsuits will be on next year’s list of predictions. 

 

Last Minute Ruling Preliminarily Halts Overtime Rules

November 23 - Posted at 2:08 PM Tagged: , , , , , , , , , ,

Rules Will Not Take Effect On December 1; Future Thereafter Uncertain

In a dramatic last-minute development, a federal judge in Texas on Tuesday (11/22/16) blocked the U.S. Department of Labor’s (DOL) overtime rule from taking effect on December 1. The judge issued a preliminary injunction preventing the rules from being implemented on a nationwide basis.


The fate of the overtime rules is now uncertain. The Trump administration will take over the DOL in less than two months’ time, and the incoming administration has repeatedly indicated that it wants to eliminate unnecessary regulations hampering the business community. Unless an appeals court reverses course in the next several weeks and breathes new life into the rules, it is quite possible that the rules will be further delayed, completely overhauled, or altogether scrapped once President Trump takes office.

Background: Proposed Rules Would Have Brought Massive Changes And Upheaval


On May 18, 2016, the DOL unveiled a package of revised regulations altering the compensation requirements relating to which employees may be treated as exempt from the federal Fair Labor Standards Act’s (FLSA’s) overtime and minimum-wage requirements under the so-called “white collar” exemptions. The two changes with the broadest impact: the minimum salary threshold to characterize an employee as non-exempt would increase from $455 to $913 per week, which annualizes to $47,476 (up from $23,660 per year); and this amount would be “updated” every three years (meaning that it will likely increase with each update) with the first update scheduled for January 1, 2020.


Once announced, the DOL informed employers that the new rules would take effect on December 1, 2016. By this date, employers would have been forced to make sometimes difficult decisions on how to compensate the estimated 4.2 million workers who are currently classified as exempt under the so-called “white collar” exemptions but earn less than the new threshold.



Almost immediately, an outcry sprung from the business community, especially those advocating on behalf of small businesses. By doubling the existing salary threshold, the DOL’s actions would likely reduce the proportion of exempt workers sharply while increasing the compensation of many who will remain exempt, rather than engaging in the fundamentally definition process called for under the FLSA. As many pointed out, manipulating exemption requirements to “give employees a raise” has never been an authorized or legitimate pursuit.



Moreover, publishing what amounts to an automatic “update” to the minimum salary threshold is something that has never before happened in the more-than-75-year history of the FLSA exemptions. This departs from the prior DOL practice of engaging in what should instead ultimately be a qualitative evaluation that would take into account a variety of considerations.


Businesses And States Turn To Court For Relief


In response to these announced changes, a group of 21 states and several business associations filed lawsuits in the Eastern District of Texas seeking a court order that would block the rules from going into effect. The cases were all consolidated into one action, to be heard by District Court Judge Amos Mazzant.


The challengers argued that the DOL did not properly carry out its responsibility under the FLSA to define these exemptions, failing to take into account the duties of white-collar workers as the best indicator for whether threshold increases were needed. The plaintiffs also argued that the automatic indexing mechanism which would ratchet up the salary levels every three years was improper because it would ignore current economic conditions or the effect on public and private resources.


Court Blocks Overtime Rules


On November 22, 2016, District Court Judge Mazzant agreed with the state challengers and blocked final implementation of the rule mere days before the December 1 effective date. In his ruling, he stated that it was improper for the DOL to adopt a salary test that categorically excludes a substantial number of workers who meet the exemptions’ duties-related requirements. Although he acknowledged that Congress delegated definitional power to the agency with respect to these exemptions, he concluded that the DOL overstepped its authority.


He concluded that the rule change equated to a de facto “salary-only test,” because it would have had the effect of causing some 4.2 million workers who are today classified as exempt to become non-exempt, despite the fact they would have exactly the same job duties on December 1. He said that Congress never authorized the DOL to classify white collar workers based on salary alone, and the DOL ignored Congress’s intent by attempting to raise the minimum salary as it did. “If Congress intended the salary requirement to supplant the duties test,” he said, “then Congress, and not the DOL, should make that change.”



The judge recognized that, for 75 years, the salary levels that served as part of the DOL’s overtime exemption test acted as a floor and not a ceiling. He said during last week’s oral argument the new rule’s proposed salary jump was “a much more drastic change.” During that argument, in fact, he pointed out that the proposed substantial increase in the salary threshold could lead to inconsistent treatment of workers who each fulfill white collar duties but are paid differently. An example is a convenience store manager who clearly acts as an executive and who is paid a salary annualizing to only $47,000 a year, for example, would be treated differently than a similarly situated manager who is paid a salary equating to $47,500 a year.

 

How Does Trump’s Election Impact The Future Of The Rules?


President Trump will be inaugurated on January 20, 2017 – less than two months from today. It is possible that Judge Mazzant might be swayed by DOL arguments in the coming weeks, or that an appeals court could step into reverse Judge Mazzant’s ruling before President Trump takes office. As the judge said in his opinion, it could be that this ruling “only delay[s] the regulation’s implementation.”



Assuming that the injunction survives the remainder of President Obama’s term, it is difficult to predict what President Trump will do with the rules once in the White House. Perhaps President Trump will direct his DOL to commence a new rulemaking process, subject to notice and comment, with the goals of setting lower thresholds for the salary requirement and eliminating the three-year update, among other changes. How long and what form such a process would take, and what could or would be done in the meantime, are currently unpredictable.



At the same time, a series of measures have been introduced in Congress hoping to prevent or stall the rules changes. While one of the proposed legislative changes would scrap the increases altogether, another proposed change would delay implementation for a period of time to provide a longer period of preparation. Still, another would push the date that the full increase would take effect to 2019, introducing more forgiving gradual increases on an annual basis for the next three years.



The fate of these measures is similarly uncertain at present. Even if any of these measures were fast-tracked, approved by Congress, and signed by President Obama before he leaves office, it is unclear whether they would ever take effect given the nature of the current litigation.


What Should Employers Do Now?


Some employers might find themselves in a difficult spot. If you have already made alterations to your compensation plans or to your employees’ exemption status, it might be unpopular to reverse course now. Although you may have the legal right to revert to the status quo depending on your circumstances, you might consider waiting until a final decision is reached in court, Congress, and the White House before doing anything further.



If you had been waiting until December 1 to implement the changes, you have the option of putting any alterations on ice and awaiting a final determination on the fate of the rules. If you do so, you might consider communicating to your workforce that the expected changes are going to be delayed given today’s court ruling, and let them know that you will continue to monitor the situation and make adjustments when and if appropriate.



We will track these developments and provide updates as issued.

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