The Pitfalls of Employee Misclassification

The misclassification of employees is both against the law and damaging to the employee and employer. Employees lose significant wages when they are misclassified, while employers are confronted with large class action lawsuits and potentially hefty monetary judgments awarded against them. Generally, the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) requires an employer to pay employees the federally mandated overtime premium rate of one and one-half times their regular rate of pay for every hour worked in excess of forty (40) hours per workweek. 29 U.S.C. § 207. However, there are exceptions that apply to workers in certain industries, which can require the worker to receive higher wages or be exempt from receiving overtime pay.

Two recent cases demonstrate the difficulty in classifying employees correctly. For example, a service specialist for Ecolab, Inc., a provider of pest elimination services to commercial and non-commercial customers, brought suit against Ecolab, Inc. claiming he and other service specialists were misclassified as exempt from overtime pay. As a result, the service specialists were not paid the overtime rate of not less than one and one-half times their regular rate of pay for all hours worked over 40 hours in a workweek. The employees asked for a class of over 1,000 service specialists to be able to proceed to trial.
Ecolab, Inc. objected, stating certain employees are exempt from overtime pay if they receive “bona fide” commission payments and are paid at least one and one-half times the minimum wage for all hours worked in a week involving overtime hours. Nonetheless, the court certified the class and allowed the jury to decide the following: 1) whether Ecolab correctly classified its employees as exempt; and 2) whether Ecolab’s compensation policy permitted employees to actually earn twice the minimum wage. This case outlines the improper classification of non-exempt employees as exempt employees. Generally, an employee is entitled to overtime when they are not employed in an executive, administrative, or professional capacity, and their true exempt status is determined primarily by their duties. Therefore, exempt employees usually have some type of managerial duties, like hiring, firing, and deciding on employee wages and salaries, as well as creating work policies and procedures. If these duties are not exercised by the worker, then it is likely he or she is non-exempt and should be afforded the protections of the law. Eventually a settlement agreement was reached, whereby Ecolab, Inc. agreed to settle the claims for $7,500,000.

Another example is the U.S. Department of Labor’s (“DOL”) investigation into DirecTV’s employment practices of how they paid their cable installers. DirecTV and their installation contractor, Advanced Information Systems, were accused of violating the minimum wage, overtime, and record-keeping laws. DirecTV’s payment practices caused the cable installers to be paid on a piece-rate basis, which caused their hourly rates to fall below the federal minimum wage. The installers were not paid overtime at a rate of one and one-half times for hours worked over 40 per week, nor were they paid for all hours worked. Further, the installers were not paid for unsuccessful installations, time in the office, or travel time, and they were not reimbursed for business expenses.

DirecTV claimed the installers were not their employees, but rather employees of DirecTV’s subcontractor Advanced Information Systems. However, the DOL found the installers only worked on DirecTV installations, drove DirecTV vans, wore DirecTV clothing, and DirecTV specified all conditions of employment. The DOL asserted DirecTV attempted to avoid employer liability by structuring the installers’ employment relationship like they did. However, the court ruled that DirecTV was a joint employer of the installers and responsible for any FLSA violations. Therefore, DirecTV was ordered to pay damages and back wages in the amount of $395,000 to 147 installers.

This case illustrates the misclassification of employees as independent contractors. Generally, to be an independent contractor, one usually has the right to control the manner and means in which they perform their job. Once an employer begins dictating how the work should be accomplished or performed, or in what order the work should be completed, the worker is more likely an employee and not an independent contractor. Independent contractors do not have to be paid minimum wage, overtime, or break time, and they do not have the same protections under the law that an employee has. Thus, classification of a worker as an employee or an independent contractor is a choice that must be made carefully and in compliance with the laws and regulations.

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FLSA Test For Meal Break Compensation Clarified

An often difficult issue for employers is whether meal breaks for non-exempt employees under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) count as compensable hours worked. Generally, the FLSA regulations state meal breaks do not count as hours worked when an employee is “completely relieved from duty for the purposes of eating regular meals.” 29 C.F.R. § 785.19. Further, an employee must generally be given 30 minutes or more and must be completely relieved of his or her duties for a period to qualify as a bona fide unpaid meal break.

However, issues arise when an employer puts various restrictions on non-exempt employees during unpaid meal breaks. For example, if an employer prohibits an employee during an unpaid meal break from leaving the employer’s premises without prior authorization, or if an employee must remain on call during a meal break to perform work at any moment, an employer could find itself in violation of the regulations and be required to pay compensable hours worked.

Recently, the Third Circuit, which covers the jurisdictions of Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and the Virgin Islands, clarified the test to be used to determine whether restrictions placed on employees during meal periods make the periods compensable hours worked, regardless of whether the employee actually performed any work during the meal period. In the case of Babcock v. Butler County, correction officers alleged the Prison’s policy for meal breaks constituted an FLSA violation and resulted in unpaid overtime compensation. The officers claimed certain restrictions were placed on them during meal breaks; for example, not being able to leave the prison without prior authorization, and being required to remain in uniform and be on call and in close proximity to emergency response equipment in the event of an emergency. The Prison filed a motion to dismiss alleging the meal periods were not hours worked because the “predominate benefit” of the meal period was received by the officers.

On appeal, the Third Circuit agreed with the Prison’s assertion and affirmed the dismissal. The “predominate benefit” test was adopted, which asks whether the employee is primarily engaged in work-related duties during the meal period. Therefore, the Third Circuit expressly rejected the more restrictive “relieved from all duties” test. In arriving at their conclusion, the Third Circuit acknowledged the “predominate benefits” test is a “fact-intensive inquiry” that assesses the “totality of the circumstances to determine, on a case-by-case basis, to whom the benefit of the meal period inures.” Based on the facts, the Court found despite the restrictions, the officers received the predominate benefit of the unpaid meal break. The Court also looked at the parties’ collective bargaining agreement, noting that the officers were required to be paid the entire meal break period if it was “interrupted” by work. Therefore, the Court found the agreement’s protections on overtime compensation supported the overall conclusion.

Employers and employees within the Third Circuit, as well as in other Circuits, should take note of the recent decision. Specifically, attention to following is required:

1. Restrictions on non-exempt employees during meal break periods do not necessarily make the meal break time compensable hours worked for FLSA purposes.
2. Under the “predominate benefit” test, the analysis is whether the restrictions are so significant and expansive that the employer predominately benefits from the meal time, not the employee.
3. Employers should treat meal breaks as compensable hours worked if the employee is interrupted by work duties at any point during the meal break.
4. If an employer wants meal breaks for non-exempt employees to remain unpaid, the employer should institute clear policies and procedures to educate employees to (1) not perform any work during a meal break unless expressly instructed by management, and (2) to report any interrupted meal breaks immediately so compensation may be received.

Due to the significant liability concerns that meal break issues present to employers, employers would be wise to ensure they have adequate and lawful meal break policies in place.

Source: Adam Long, When Must Meal Breaks Be Paid? Third Circuit Clarifies FLSA Test (December 2, 2015), See more at:

(Advertising Material:  This Notice is for informational purposes and should not be construed as legal advice).

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