On November 8, 2018, the Department of Labor published an Opinion Letter (FLSA2018-27) reissuing its January 16, 2009 guidance (Opinion Letter FLSA2009-23) and reversing the agency’s Obama-era position on the 20% tip credit rule. The letter marks another significant shift in Department of Labor policy, and among the first major changes in federal tip credit policy over the last decade. READ MORE
Last week, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (“FINRA”) filed its first disciplinary action involving cryptocurrencies, conforming with its stated 2018 goal of monitoring and supervising the largely unregulated cryptocurrency market. FINRA’s actions reflect a long-anticipated and increased scrutiny on entities—including employers—dealing with cryptocurrency.
In the September 11 disciplinary complaint, FINRA alleged that a former Massachusetts broker, Timothy Tilton Ayre, committed securities fraud by avoiding registration requirements and selling an unregistered, cannabis-focused cryptocurrency security called HempCoin. Ayre purchased HempCoin in June 2015 and immediately advertised as “the first minable coin backed by marketable securities.” Ayre transformed the cryptocurrency into a security tied to his company, Rocky Mountain Ayre (“RMTN”), valuing each HempCoin as 0.1 shares of RMTN and trading over the counter. Investors mined over 81 million HempCoins through late 2017. However, Ayre failed to register HempCoin with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”).
FINRA’s action, coupled with recent joint statements by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (“CFTC”) and the SEC addressing plans for heightened oversight of virtual currency regulation, reflect potential obstacles entities may face in dealing with cryptocurrency, or blockchain technology more broadly.
Growing start-ups or legacy companies with new industry sectors should be particularly mindful of the novel and transformative legal issues related to these emerging areas. For instance, although blockchain technology is generally expected to make data more secure, employers should continue to monitor their use of this technology for data privacy concerns related to information storage and programs for employment-related decisions. Further, employers should note that cryptocurrency is not currently recognized as legal tender in the United States.
The Federal Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) mandates “payments of the prescribed wages, including [minimum wage and] overtime compensation, in cash or negotiable instrument payable at par.” 29 CFR § 531.27(a). The phrase “payable at par” allows cryptocurrencies to be a lawful method of payment under the FLSA, but employers should proceed with care if considering whether to use cryptocurrency to pay employee wages, particularly due to challenges with minimum wage and overtime calculations. Indeed, the legal designation for tax purposes is also unsettled: the SEC classifies cryptocurrency as a security; the CFTC says cryptocurrency is a commodity; and since 2014, the IRS has defined cryptocurrency as taxable property.
Given these ambiguities and emerging issues, employers dealing with cryptocurrency and incorporating blockchain technology into their practices should be aware of the potential legal implications and oversight in areas beyond the traditional employment law arena.
This week, the United States Department Labor (“DOL”) is conducting its first listening session on the white collar exemptions under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”)—more commonly known as the “overtime rule.” Several additional listening sessions will take place later this month. The sessions are expected to focus on public opinion regarding changing the current minimum salary level for exempt employees from its current level of $455 per week ($23,660 annually). There is no fee to attend a session, but registration is required here.
These sessions are just the latest in the ongoing saga over revisions to the overtime rule that began two years ago in September 2016, when twenty-two states and dozens of business groups challenged the Obama administration’s overtime regulation revisions that were finalized earlier that year. The new rule was set to implement several changes, most notably raising the minimum salary level for exempt employees to $913 per week ($47,476 annually), effective December 1, 2016. Before the new rule could take effect, the Texas federal judge hearing the case issued a nationwide injunction preventing the DOL from implementing and enforcing it, based partially on a holding that the new rule exceeded Congress’s delegation of authority to the DOL. The Obama administration appealed, and after requesting additional time to respond, the Trump administration decided to uphold the position that the DOL had the authority to revise the applicable salary level. However, in July 2017, the DOL also issued a Request for Information (“RFI”) on the overtime rule, asking for the public to submit comments by the end of September. The following month, the district court judge granted the states’ and business groups’ motions for summary judgment, invalidating the regulation. The DOL decided to dismiss its appeal and instead to pursue its own regulatory rulemaking process.
The RFI asked broad ranging questions related not only to the salary level, but to other exemption-related requirements, such as the duties test. It elicited over 140,000 public comments, including from major representative and advocacy organizations such as the United States Chamber of Commerce and Independent Sector (representing the nonprofit sector). The Chamber opposed only an “excessive increase,” suggesting that based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a more modest increase to a minimum salary of $612 per week ($31,824 annualized) was more appropriate. The Chamber also expressed its opposition to any change to the duties test. The Independent Sector highlighted the heavy financial burden the proposed increase would bring to the already-financially-strained nonprofit/charitable organizations nationwide. It suggested that any change be phased in to permit organizations time to adapt, and also expressed concern that any potential change to the duties test would “significantly impact the operations of charitable organizations,” asking that any change be considered through a formal rulemaking process allowing the public time to comment and review.
Last week’s announcement on the listening sessions offered our first glimpse into the DOL’s rulemaking process since the RFI period closed last year. Notably, the agenda questions focus exclusively on the salary test—a much narrower set of questions than those posed in the RFI. Listening Session participants are asked to focus on the four following issues: (1) “the appropriate salary level (or range of salary levels) above which the overtime exemptions for bona fide executive, administrative, or professional employees may apply”; (2) “[w]hat benefits and costs to employees and employers might accompany an increased salary level”; (3) “the best methodology to determine an updated salary level”; and (4) whether the DOL should “more regularly update the standard salary level and the total-annual-compensation level for highly compensated employees.” Noticeably absent is any indication that DOL is considering automatic inflationary updating to the salary level test. This reverts back to the position in the Bush DOL that the Department did not have statutory authority to implement automatic updating. In any event, this suggests that the DOL is shying away from changes to the duties test or other more expansive revisions as the formal rulemaking process rarely expands beyond the scope of the informal information gathering. The answer will have to wait until the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking is released, which is expected in January, at the earliest.
On July 26, 2018, the California Supreme Court found that employers must compensate workers for the time they spend on certain menial tasks after clocking out of their shifts. In a unanimous decision, the Court held that California wage law did not bar a putative class action brought by a former Starbucks employee who routinely spent several minutes on trivial close-out tasks after his shift. READ MORE
On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that service advisers at car dealerships are exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). In Encino Motorcars v. Navarro, the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas, Anthony Kennedy, Samuel Alito, and Neil Gorsuch voted to overturn the Ninth Circuit’s ruling on this exemption a second time, deciding that service advisors are “salesm[e]n . . . primarily engaged in . . . servicing automobiles,” and thus are exempt from overtime pay. READ MORE
As Congress considers a bill to change the definition of joint employment under two federal statutes, the Supreme Court is poised to decide whether to take up the issue under the Fair Labor Standards Act, the U.S. Department of Labor has withdrawn administrative guidance issued by the prior administration, and several states have enacted or considered joint employment legislation. In this rapidly evolving legal landscape, companies may want to keep a close eye on a doctrine that can lead to unexpected legal exposure. READ MORE
Effective June 7, 2017, the Department of Labor (“DOL”) has withdrawn informal guidance on independent contractors and joint employment. The guidance on independent contractors came from an Administrator’s Interpretation released in 2015 and was the result of the DOL’s renewed focus on worker misclassification. In it, the DOL seized upon a broad definition of “employ” under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”)—“to suffer or permit to work”—to conclude that “most workers are employees under the FLSA.” The DOL’s guidance on joint employment was released in 2016 and also came from an Administrator’s Interpretation. The guidance provided a broad interpretation of joint employment in the wake of the NLRB’s Browning-Ferris decision. It also distinguished between “horizontal” joint employment, which occurs when the employee has an employment relationship with two or more sufficiently related employers, and “vertical” joint employment, which occurs when the employee has an employment relationship with one employer (such a staffing agency or subcontractor), but economic realities show that he or she is economically dependent upon another entity. READ MORE
The Second Circuit has affirmed the dismissal of a class action of New York City “black car” drivers who alleged they were misclassified as independent contractors by their dispatchers. In reaching its ruling, the Court found that multiple factors of the economic realities test weighed against employee status for the drivers.
Black car drivers provide rides to high-end clientele, such as business executives, celebrities, and dignitaries. In 2012, a class of drivers sued Corporate Transportation Group Ltd. and a number of its affiliates (collectively, the “dispatchers”) alleging they were misclassified as independent contractors in violation of the FLSA and New York Labor Law. After originally granting conditional class certification, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York granted the dispatchers’ motion for summary judgment, concluding the drivers were properly classified as independent contractors under both statutes. READ MORE
On January 20, 2017, shortly after Donald Trump became the 45th President of the United States, his Chief of Staff, Reince Priebus, issued an Executive Memorandum mandating a 60-day freeze on published federal regulations that have yet to take effect to allow Trump’s appointees time to review the regulations. Although such action is fairly standard during a change of administration, the impact could be significant if certain regulations set to take effect in 2017 are delayed or ultimately replaced. Regulations potentially affected by the 60-day freeze include the Department of Labor’s (“DOL”) overtime and fiduciary rules, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (“EEOC”) EEO-1 pay reporting requirements. READ MORE
On December 5, 2016, the Seventh Circuit affirmed dismissal of a complaint filed by two University of Pennsylvania track and field athletes against the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the university, and more than 120 other NCAA Division I universities and colleges alleging that student athletes are entitled to minimum wage under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”). In Berger v. NCAA, the court held that student athletes are not “employees” within the meaning of the FLSA and thus, are not entitled to a minimum wage for their athletic activities. READ MORE