Articles Posted in Wage and Hour Disputes

Professional football presents multiple legal issues related to employment. New Jersey officially has no team in the National Football League. That said, both of the New York-based NFL teams, the Giants and the Jets, have used stadiums in Northern New Jersey as their home fields since the early 1980s. Issues affecting players in the NFL, particularly the lasting effects of concussions and other injuries, have received media attention in recent years. NFL cheerleaders have also made a variety of complaints regarding wages, working conditions, and sexual harassment. In 2016, the New York Jets settled a New Jersey wage and hour lawsuit filed on behalf of a class of NFL cheerleaders. In 2018, a former cheerleader, who had recently been fired by another team, filed a sex discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

While NFL players usually receive generous salaries under contracts with their teams, cheerleaders are often paid far less and do not have the protection of a defined term of employment. NFL cheerleaders have recently made several successful wage claims. A lawsuit filed in New Jersey in 2014, Krystal C. v. New York Jets LLC, alleged that the compensation received by members of the Jets’ cheerleading squad, when compared to the number of hours they were required to work, was often substantially less than minimum wage. Cheerleaders were paid $150 per game and $100 for appearances at team-sponsored events, but not for other required activities like practices and rehearsals. The parties entered into a settlement agreement in 2016, in which the team agreed to pay $325,000 to the class of plaintiffs.

Claims of sex discrimination involving NFL cheerleaders have not received as much attention in the court system as wage claims. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex. Cheerleading, as an occupation, presents some challenges in this area. Technical skill, including proficiency in dance, is not the only requirement for the job of cheerleader. To put it bluntly, cheerleaders are expected to meet a particular standard of physical attractiveness.

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) establishes a nationwide minimum wage, which has been $7.25 per hour since 2010. This does not apply to all workers, however. The minimum wage that employers of tipped employees, such as restaurant servers, must pay is considerably less than $7.25 per hour, with the understanding that tips received from customers will at least make up the difference. In late 2017, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) proposed a rule that would give employers more control over the distribution of tips, which met with considerable criticism. In March 2018, a member of the House of Representatives from Connecticut introduced the Tip Income Protection (TIP) Act of 2018. While this bill has not advanced, a similar measure made it into the Consolidated Appropriations Act (CAA) of 2018, which was signed into law on March 23. This effectively rendered the proposed DOL rule moot.

A “tipped employee,” under the FLSA, is someone who, in the course of their job, “customarily and regularly receives more than $30 a month in tips.” 29 U.S.C. § 203(t). Employers are obligated to pay tipped employees a base rate of $2.13 per hour. Id. at § 203(m)(1), 29 C.F.R. § 531.50(a). If the amount of tips received by a tipped employee, when added to this base income amount, is less than $7.25 per hour, the employer must pay the employee the difference. 29 U.S.C. § 203(m)(2). The statute allows tipped employees to pool their tips, but employers may not require them to do so. A New Jersey wage and hour lawyer can help you bring a claim if your employer instituted an improper tip pooling program.

In December 2017, the DOL published a proposed rule that would remove restrictions on employers’ control over tips paid by customers, essentially allowing them to require tip pooling. 82 Fed. Reg. 57395 (Dec. 5, 2017). The DOL claimed that this would allow a more fair allocation of tip income among employees, including cooks and dishwashers who do not ordinarily receive tip income. Since the proposed rule would only apply to employers that already pay tipped employees at or above the minimum wage, critics alleged that the rule would allow employers to pocket any tip income above the minimum wage threshold. The proposed rule received more than 218,000 comments from the public.

Internships often allow students to gain “real world” experience before entering the job market, but they have been a subject of controversy in the area of employment law. New Jersey labor law provides a statutory test for determining when an individual may be considered an intern, who is not necessarily protected by state wage and hour laws, and when they are an employee who should receive a paycheck. N.J.A.C. § 12:56-2.1. The federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) does not expressly define the difference between an intern and an employee, so the job of interpreting the statute goes to the Wage and Hour Division (WHD) of the U.S. Department of Labor. In January 2018, the WHD issued Field Assistance Bulletin No. 2018-2, which sets forth a new test for determining, in claims involving federal law, when an intern is actually an employee.

The FLSA governs the payment of wages to employees and the hours they may be expected to work, including provisions for minimum wage and overtime compensation. It defines an “employee” as “any individual employed by an employer.” 29 U.S.C. § 203(e)(1). The statute’s equally unhelpful definition of “employ” is “to suffer or permit to work.” Id. at § 203(g). It does not provide a definition for “intern” or “internship.” The commonly accepted definition of an internship is a temporary position that allows a student to gain experience in a particular field. The actual job description of an internship varies widely from one industry and one company to another. Interns in one company might spend much of their days getting coffee and running other errands, while interns in another company might gain hands-on experience in the profession of their dreams. Internships are often unpaid, based on the rationale that interns gain experience and connections that will help them start their careers.

The WHD established a six-part test for determining whether an individual is an employee under the FLSA in 2010 in a document entitled Fact Sheet No. 71. While the WHD has since updated that sheet on its website to reflect the new test, some court decisions evaluating the old test include its original text. The test considered whether the internship (1) was similar to instruction the intern would receive at school, (2) primarily benefited the intern rather than the employer, (3) did not displace existing workers, (4) provided “no immediate advantage” to the employer from the intern’s activities, (5) included no promise of a permanent job, and (6) involved an understanding between both parties that no wages were to be paid. Glatt v. Fox Searchlight Pictures, Inc., 811 F.3d 528, 534-35 (2d Cir. 2016). An intern is not an employee if all six questions are answered in the affirmative.

Employment statutes at the federal and state levels require New Jersey employers to pay a minimum wage to their employees, and to pay overtime to many employees for work performed in excess of 40 hours per week. The federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) sets a nationwide minimum wage and rules for employees who are entitled to overtime pay. The New Jersey Wage and Hour Law (NJWHL) establishes similar standards within the state. If an employer fails to meet its legal obligations to pay regular and overtime wages, these statutes allow employees to bring lawsuits to recover back pay and other damages. Two recently filed New Jersey overtime lawsuits allege non-payment of wages by a major retail company. Baccicheti v. Urban Outfitters, Inc., No. 2:17-cv-10919, complaint (D.N.J., Nov. 3, 2017); Trapp v. Urban Outfitters, Inc., No. 2:17-cv-11067, complaint (D.N.J., Nov. 3, 2017).

As a general rule, the FLSA requires employers to pay non-exempt employees a rate of one-and-half times their regular wage for any hours worked in a week beyond the usual 40 hours. 29 U.S.C. § 207(a)(1). The statute includes numerous exceptions and exemptions from the overtime requirement, including anyone “employed in a bona fide executive, administrative, or professional capacity,” outside salespeople, certain agricultural employees, newspaper employees, and others. Id. at § 213(a). While it is impossible to generalize, it is probably fair to say that most “non-exempt” employees who are entitled to overtime pay are paid by the hour and work in a position that is subordinate to management.

Employers are prohibited from violating the overtime rules established by the FLSA. Id. at § 215(a)(2). The statute allows for fines of up to $10,000 and up to six months’ imprisonment for wage and hour violations, id. at § 216(a), although employees are often more interested in getting paid by their employers than punishing them. In addition to imposing administrative penalties, the FLSA allows employees to recover unpaid wages, liquidated damages in an equal amount, and equitable relief such as reinstatement or promotion. Id. at § 216(b).

Overtime laws have many exceptions and exemptions, but even when an employee is indisputably entitled to overtime, disputes may also arise over what, precisely, constitutes “work time” for which the employee is owed compensation. A New York appellate court recently ruled on this question with regard to home care attendants who do not reside with their clients but who work 24-hour shifts. Andryeyeva v. New York Health Care, Inc., 2017 NY Slip Op 6421 (N.Y. App., 2d Dept., Sep. 13, 2017). While the industry standard does not require employers to pay home care attendants for time spent sleeping or eating, the plaintiffs alleged that this practice violated a state regulation regarding non-residential employees. The court ruled that non-residential home care attendants are entitled to pay for sleep and meal periods. Another New York appellate court reached similar findings earlier this year in Tokhtaman v. Human Care, LLC, 2017 NY Slip Op 2759 (N.Y. App., 1st Dept., Apr. 11, 2017). These decisions do not directly affect New Jersey wage and overtime disputes, but they could have some impact in the future.

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), the New Jersey Wage and Hour Law, and other statutes require employers to pay non-exempt employees time-and-a-half for hours worked in excess of 40 hours in a week. Neither statute provides a specific definition of “hours worked.” The FLSA includes “hours worked” in the section providing definitions. Rather than defining the term, however, it merely notes that time spent performing certain tasks “at the beginning or end of each workday” might not count as “hours worked” if excluding this time is part of a collective bargaining agreement. 29 U.S.C. § 203(o). Unpaid time spent changing into or out of a uniform or other required work clothes is a common basis for overtime claims.

The plaintiffs in Andryeyeva and Tokhtaman provide in-home care to elderly individuals and individuals with disabilities. They do not provide “residential” or “live-in” care, meaning that they have their own separate residences. They often work long shifts, however, lasting 24 hours or longer. During that time, they are often able to sleep and eat meals, but they must remain with or near the client. The question presented in both cases was, essentially, whether sleep and meal time counts as “hours worked.”

New Jersey employment laws protect workers’ rights in multiple areas, including wages and hours of work, discrimination and harassment, and retaliation for reporting suspected wrongdoing by an employer. Many of these laws apply specifically to “employees,” but no single definition of “employee” exists. Some statutes only cover paid employees, while others also apply to independent contractors, unpaid interns, or volunteers. The legal status of unpaid workers, including both interns and volunteers, has been the subject of multiple court battles. The New Jersey Appellate Division recently held that the state’s whistleblower statute, the Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA), does not apply to unpaid volunteers. Sauter v. Colts Neck Volunteer Fire Co. No. 2, No. A-0354-15T1, slip op. (N.J. App., Sep. 13, 2017). In light of this decision, it is worth reviewing how various employment statutes in New Jersey view unpaid volunteers and interns.

“Volunteer” Versus “Intern”

Some laws make a distinction between volunteers and interns. Generally speaking, an internship provides some form of educational benefit to the worker, possibly including course credit at an educational institution, and it may be paid or unpaid. Even when an internship is unpaid, the worker is considered to gain an educational benefit. A volunteer position, on the other hand, is usually undertaken for primarily altruistic reasons, or at least without the expectation of any specific return.

Federal overtime rules seek to ensure that workers receive fair compensation for excess time spent working. Not all employees are entitled to overtime pay under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Employees must be vigilant in identifying attempts by employers to avoid paying overtime, such as misclassification of employees under an FLSA exemption. In 2014, the Obama administration requested a review of certain FLSA overtime exemption categories, in an effort to bring them in line with the modern workplace. After the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) published a final rule, a group of state governments and business groups filed suit and obtained a preliminary injunction. Nevada, et al. v. U.S. Dept. of Labor, et al., No. 4:16-cv-00731, mem. op. (E.D. Tex., Nov. 22, 2016). Now, a group of workers in New Jersey have filed a putative class action testing the scope and extent of the injunction. Alvarez, et al. v. Chipotle Mexican Grill, Inc., et al., No. 2:17-cv-04095, complaint (D.N.J., Jun. 7, 2017).

The FLSA requires employers to pay workers at least “one and one-half times the regular rate” for work time during any week that exceeds 40 hours. 29 U.S.C. § 207(a)(1). Some employees are exempt from this requirement, however, including anyone who works “in a bona fide executive, administrative, or professional capacity.” Id. at § 213(a)(1). The statute does not define “executive, administrative, or professional” (EAP), so the DOL developed definitions in 29 C.F.R. Part 541. These definitions have undergone multiple revisions since the FLSA was first enacted in 1938, most recently in 2004.

A memo issued by the White House in March 2014, addressed to the Secretary of Labor, sought “to modernize and streamline the existing overtime regulations for [EAP] employees.” 79 Fed. Reg. 18737 (Apr. 3, 2014). The DOL published a Final Rule in May 2016, which was scheduled to go into effect on December 1 of last year. 81 Fed. Reg. 32391 (May 23, 2016). Several months later, 21 states and a number of business groups filed suit against the DOL over the new rule.

The wage gap between men and women has received considerable media attention recently, and new legislation is attempting to improve conditions. Federal law prohibits disparate pay based on gender, but it leaves several loopholes. A new law in New York City is intended to close one of these loopholes by prohibiting employers from asking job applicants for salary history or from using salary history to determine a new employee’s compensation. This practice often perpetuates the wage gap without specifically violating equal pay laws, since female employees’ salary histories are often likely to reflect lower rates of pay than male colleagues. Several jurisdictions around the country have enacted similar laws. New York City’s law will take effect on October 31, 2017.

The federal Equal Pay Act (EPA) of 1963 prohibits employers from paying employees of different sexes at different rates “for equal work” in jobs that require “equal skill, effort, and responsibility…under similar working conditions.” 29 U.S.C. § 206(d)(1). It makes exceptions, however, for wages that are determined based on seniority, merit, “quantity or quality of production,” or “a differential based on any other factor other than sex.” Id. This last exception arguably applies to decisions based on salary history, since the applicant’s gender is not a direct factor in the employer’s calculations. A federal appellate court reached this conclusion recently in Rizo v. Yovino, No. 16-15372, slip op. (9th Cir., Apr. 27, 2017).

New York state law resembled the EPA until 2015, when the legislature passed a bill limiting the “factor other than sex” exception. Under the amended statute, the “factor” cannot be “based upon or derived from a sex-based differential in compensation,” and it must “be job-related…and…consistent with business necessity.” N.Y. Lab. L. § 194(1)(d). Furthermore, a complainant can challenge any “employment practice that causes a disparate impact on the basis of sex.” Id. The New Jersey Legislature passed a bill in 2016 that would have made similar amendments to equal pay provisions, found in N.J. Rev. Stat. § 10:5-12. The governor conditionally vetoed the bill, and the legislature failed to override the veto.

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The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), 29 U.S.C. § 201 et seq., is the federal statute that governs minimum wage and overtime compensation for many employers around the country. Its overtime provisions have endured, more or less unchanged, since Congress enacted the statute in 1938. A bill currently pending in Congress, however, could change the nature of overtime compensation for workers all over the U.S. H.R. 1180, known as the Working Families Flexibility Act (WFFA) of 2017, would give employees and employers the option of compensatory time off from work, or “comp time,” instead of overtime compensation. Advocates of the bill say that this would only apply in cases of voluntary agreements between employers and employees. Critics, however, contend that the bill would result in less flexibility for workers’ schedules and less money for workers who might depend on overtime compensation. The House of Representatives passed the WFFA in May 2017. Its Senate counterpart, S. 801, is pending in committee.

Overtime compensation is currently required under the FLSA for all non-exempt employees of covered employers. For any amount of work in excess of 40 hours in a workweek, the employer must pay one-and-a-half times the employee’s regular hourly rate. 29 U.S.C. § 207(a). Employees who are exempt from overtime requirements include individuals “employed in a bona fide executive, administrative, or professional capacity;” outside salespersons; and workers in certain agricultural jobs. Id. at § 213(a). The FLSA currently only provides for comp time, instead of overtime, for employees of government agencies. Id. at § 207(o).

The WFFA largely takes the FLSA’s provisions regarding comp time for public employees, found in § 207(o), and applies them to all workers covered by the overtime rules. The bill would add a new subsection (s) to § 207 entitled “Compensatory Time Off For Private Employees.” The new subsection would state that an employee “may receive,…in lieu of monetary overtime compensation, compensatory time off at a rate not less than one and one-half hours” for every hour covered by overtime requirements.

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Employment law is composed of statutes and regulations at multiple levels of government. It is perhaps inevitable that disputes will arise over the meaning of particular legal provisions. Courts have the responsibility of determining how to apply a law or regulation when its meaning is unclear, usually through a process known as statutory construction. If the “plain language” meaning of the rule or statute is ambiguous, they may look at the legislative history to see what lawmakers intended. A recent federal appellate court decision interpreted a statute based on the legislature’s use of punctuation. O’Connor v. Oakhurst Dairy, 851 F.3d 69 (1st Cir. 2017). The court found that a missing serial comma, also known as the “Oxford comma,” in a list of exemptions from a state overtime wage law created a very narrow exemption, which did not include the plaintiffs. This meant that the plaintiffs were entitled to overtime pay.

State and federal employment laws require employers to pay non-exempt workers one-and-a-half times their regular hourly rate for work performed in excess of 40 hours in a week. States may differ in how they define exemptions from overtime law. New Jersey, like most jurisdictions, exempts workers “employed in a bona fide executive, administrative, or professional capacity,” as well as numerous specific jobs. N.J. Rev. Stat. § 34:11-56a4. The O’Connor case deals with Maine’s overtime statute, which exempts workers employed in “the canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of” various food products. 26 Me. Rev. Stat. § 664(3)(F). The dispute centered on the lack of a serial comma between the words “shipment or distribution.”

The “Oxford comma” appears before the final item in a written list of three or more items. For example, in the sentence “I would like an apple, a banana, and a pear,” the Oxford comma appears after the word “banana.” The same sentence without that comma is equally grammatically correct:  “I would like an apple, a banana and a pear.” Usually, use of the Oxford comma is purely a question of style—some style manuals require it, while others do not. At times, though, the lack of an Oxford comma creates an ambiguity.

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