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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.

U.S. Department of Labor Proposes to Restrict Scope of FLSA ‘White-Collar’ Overtime Exemptions

July 24 - Posted at 5:53 PM Tagged: , , , , , ,

After more than 15 months of waiting, the U.S. Department of Labor has issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (“NPRM”) announcing the Department’s intention to shrink dramatically the pool of employees who qualify for exempt status under the Fair Labor Standards Act.


The 295-page NPRM, released June 30, contains a few specific changes to existing DOL regulations: more than doubling the salary threshold for the executive, administrative, and professional exemptions from $455 a week currently to $921 a week (with a plan to increase that number to $970 a week in the final version of the regulation), as well as raising the pay thresholds for certain other exemptions, and building in room for future annual increases. More ominously, the Department invites comment on a host of other issues. This opens the door to many further significant revisions to the regulations in a Final Rule after the Department reviews the public’s comments to the NPRM.


Background

On March 13, 2014, President Obama directed the Secretary of Labor to modernize and streamline the existing overtime regulations for exempt executive, administrative, and professional employees. He said the compensation paid to these employees has not kept pace with America’s economy since the Department last revised regulations in 2004. The President noted that the minimum annual salary level for these exempt classifications under the 2004 regulations is $23,660, which is below the poverty line for a family of four.


Since the President issued his memo, the Department has held meetings with a variety of stakeholders, including employers, workers, trade associations, and other advocates. The Department has raised questions about how the current regulations work and how they can be improved. The discussions have focused on the compensation levels for the exempt classifications as well as the duties required to qualify for exempt status.


The NPRM

The NPRM expressed the Department’s intention to increase the salary threshold for the white-collar exemptions from $455 a week (or $23,660 a year) to $921 a week ($47,892 a year), which the Department expects to revise to $970 a week ($50,440 a year in 2016) when it issues its Final Rule. Under this single change to the regulations, it is estimated that 4.6 million currently exempt employees would lose their exemption right away, with another 500,000 to 1 million currently exempt employees losing exempt status over the next 10 years as a result of the automatic increases to the salary threshold.


The NPRM acknowledges that roughly 25% of all employees currently exempt and subject to the salary basis requirement will be rendered non-exempt under the proposed regs. The Department recognizes that employers are likely to reduce the working hours of currently exempt employees reclassified as a result of these regulations, and that the reduction in hours will probably lead to lower overall pay for these employees.

Related changes in the regs include increasing the annual compensation threshold for exempt highly compensated employees from the present level of $100,000 to a proposed $122,148, as well as raising the exemption threshold for the motion picture producing industry from the present $695 a week to a proposed $1,404 a week for employees compensated on a day-rate basis.


Perhaps not surprisingly, given the likely impact of the proposal, almost all of the NPRM is devoted to economic analysis and justification for the steep increase in the salary thresholds. Nevertheless, the NPRM touches on some other topics as well. The Department states that it is considering, and invites comment on, a wide range of topics, including:

  • Whether to allow nondiscretionary bonuses to satisfy some portion of the required salary level (the Department suggests up to 10%), including the appropriate frequency of such bonuses (the Department suggests not less than monthly);
  • Whether to allow commissions to satisfy some portion of the required salary level;
  • Whether to modify the current duties tests for exempt status, including the “primary duty” standard, by such means as:
    • Adopting the California model requiring that exempt employees spend more than half of their working time on exempt tasks;
    • Placing quantitative limits on the amount of time exempt employees may spend on non-exempt duties; or
    • Modifying or eliminating the concept of concurrent duties whereby exempt employees can maintain exempt status when performing exempt and non-exempt activity simultaneously; and
  • The best way to determine annual updates to the salary levels in the regulations.


What Comes Next?

The proposed regulations are subject to a 30-day public comment period. Now is the time for any employer or trade association dissatisfied with the proposed regulatory text, or concerned about changes the Department is weighing for inclusion in a Final Rule, to submit comments. The Department has put the regulated public on notice: it is considering sweeping changes to the regulations not described specifically in the proposed regulatory text, such as altering the duties tests for exempt status. Employers may not have another opportunity to comment on the content of a Final Rule.


Following the public comment period, the Department will issue a Final Rule that may add, change, delete, or affirm the regulatory text of the proposal. The Office of Management and Budget will review the Final Rule before publication. This process is likely to take at least six to eight months. A Final Rule is not expected before 2016.

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