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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.
It doesn’t usually sit well with employees, but they can be required to use their accrued paid time off (PTO) during inclement weather events, wage and hour attorneys say.
“Unless there is a state law restriction or a written policy to the contrary, employers may require employees to use their PTO to cover absences,” said Paul DeCamp, an attorney with Jackson Lewis in Reston, Va., and a former administrator of the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division.
It’s important for an employer to have an inclement weather policy spelling out the rules that apply to exempt and nonexempt employees when the employer is open during inclement weather vs. when it is closed.
The rules for nonexempt employees are straightforward—they are paid only for the time worked. If the employer closes for some of a workweek due to inclement weather, it must pay an exempt worker their usual salary if the employee performs any work during the workweek, even if remotely.
A PTO policy might specifically reference the employer’s ability to require the use of PTO by employees to cover weather-related absences. If an employer closes the office and requires the use of PTO to cover the day, the impact on morale is likely to be negative—more so than if the office is open but the employer allows employees who can’t make it in to use a PTO day. If the employer decides in advance to shut down and it turns out that the expected inclement weather does not materialize, employees who are forced to use PTO on a day they could have made it in will almost certainly react negatively.
It is important that employees understand the expectations about working away from work ahead of time, along with employees being required to accurately report all time worked. Employers should also have policies about how employees can challenge the accuracy of paychecks and the consequences for not making timely challenges.
Courts have held that employees who claim to have worked off-the-clock but who have not notified the employer about that worked time are not entitled to pay for that time.
If an employer stays open despite inclement weather and an exempt employee chooses not to work, that is a personal decision and the day may be docked without jeopardizing the exempt status.
A written policy is an opportunity for an employer to underscore the importance of employees’ safety when determining closures or whether employees should attempt to report to work in inclement conditions.
Employers sometimes ask whether they may discipline employees for choosing to stay home during inclement weather. The employer does not want to allow employees to hinder operations or to force a closure, but the last thing an employer wants to see is a situation where a supervisor orders an employee to come to work in a snowstorm and the employee gets into a car accident. Employers should think very carefully before disciplining in this situation and to err on the side of employee and public safety.
One of the most common questions employers have during inclement weather is if they can force employees with insufficient PTO balances to go into a negative balance situation, or, in other words, whether they can advance the employee extra PTO and then recoup that advance over time.
Generally, an employer can do that, assuming the practice complies with state law and the employer’s written policies.
Another frequent issue that arises is how to treat PTO deficits upon an employee’s separation from employment. State law will dictate whether and when employers may deduct the negative PTO balance from the final pay of nonexempt employees.
For salaried exempt employees, whether the employer can deduct that balance from final pay depends on whether the employer could have deducted it from the employee’s pay at the time of the absence—the missed time that gave rise to the PTO deficit.
President Obama has proposed expanding the availability of overtime pay, which would cause the Department of Labor to do its first overhaul of Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) regulations in 10 years.
The President signed a memorandum on March 13, 2014, instructing the Department of Labor to update regulations about who qualifies for overtime pay. In particular, he wants to raise the threshold level for the salary-basis test from the current $455 per week in order to account for inflation. The threshold has been raised just twice in the past 40 years. The President did not specify the exact amount the threshold should be raised though.
“Unfortunately, today, millions of Americans aren’t getting the extra pay they deserve. That’s because an exception that was originally meant for high-paid, white-collar employees now covers workers earning as little as $23,660 a year,” Obama said in his remarks on overtime pay.
The memorandum also suggests that both the primary duties and pay of some exempted employees do not truly fit in the executive, administrative and professional employees exemptions, referred to as the white-collar exemptions under FLSA.
In a fact sheet on the President’s memorandum, the White House said: “Millions of salaried workers have been left without the protections of overtime or sometimes even the minimum wage. For example, a convenience store manager or a fast food shift supervisor or an office worker may be expected to work 50 or 60 hours a week or more, making barely enough to keep a family out of poverty, and not receive a dime of overtime pay.” The FLSA’s minimum wage would not protect a salaried worker because salaried workers’ pay must satisfy the weekly salary-basis test rather than the Federal hourly minimum wage, which is $7.25 per hour. The hourly minimum wage in Florida is currently $7.93 per hour.
The memo also pointed out that “only 12% of salaried workers fall below the threshold that would guarantee them overtime and minimum wage protections.“ The fact sheet also called the current FLSA regulations outdated, noting that states such as New York and California have set higher salary thresholds.
Small businesses will be hit particularly hard by a change in the FLSA regulations.
If the regulations shrink the current white-collar exemptions, employers would have two main options to hold down costs. They would have to either increase workers’ salary above the new salary-basis threshold (to avoid paying overtime) or leave employees in the nonexempt category and pay them overtime. Companies could also hire more employees, but the other two options are more likely.
Implications for HR
Once tightened white-collar exemptions are implemented, which is not likely to happen for months now, it could result in far-reaching implications for HR, including wage and hour audits and layoffs. The money to pay for increased overtime wages has got to come from somewhere which might mean layoffs, reducing overtime and taking a fresh look at the fluctuating workweek.
When asked at a press briefing about the burden on businesses if the Obama administration succeeds in efforts to both increase the federal minimum wage and revise FLSA regulations, Betsey Stevenson, a member of the White House’s Council of Economic Advisers, said, “We think these two items are very different, but, obviously, they do feed into the same thing, which is people should be rewarded for fair work.” She suggested that some workers in the white-collar exemptions aren’t even earning minimum wage for all the work they do at low salaries.
Even though the president did not assign a number for the minimum salary-basis threshold, Stevenson said the overtime “protections have been eroded over time. This threshold in 1975 was nearly $1,000 in today’s dollars; today it’s $455.” Stevenson believes that the rule should be modernized as a matter of the “basic principle of fairness.”
We will continue to keep you abreast of any changes to FLSA as well as other regulations that can impact your business. If you have any questions about the current or proposed FLSA regulations, please contact our office.
The topic this month focuses on identifying five of the stickiest Wage & Hour issues that employers face under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).
FLSA class actions are up approximately 70% since 2000 and more than half of all the FLSA lawsuites being filed in Federal courts nationwide are being filed in Florida.
Some of these issues covered include:
Please contact our office directly if you have any Wage & Hour or FLSA questions and how it could be impacting your business.