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“Spiritual coercion,” “volunteers” and children under federal wage laws

Two recent decisions by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals address the applicability of federal labor laws to church volunteers. The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) is the nation’s leading wage-hour law. FLSA requires a minimum wage, overtime pay and prohibits child labor. FLSA applies only to “employees.” Volunteers are generally not considered to be “employees;” therefore, FLSA generally does not apply to volunteers. These two recent cases addressed these concepts in the context of church volunteers.

One case was decided by the Sixth Circuit, Acosta v. Cathedral Buffet, Inc. It involved a restaurant, operated by a church, on the church’s campus, that was open to the public and staffed in part by church volunteers.

The other case was decided by the Tenth Circuit, Acosta v. Paragon Contractors Corp. It involved a pecan ranch, at which church members, including children, harvested pecans.

In both cases, the Courts held the businesses were commercial enterprises subject to FLSA, and that the church members were doing work. Thus both courts were called to decide if the church members were truly volunteering their time, such that FLSA did not apply to their work. Both courts looked to a 1985 Supreme Court decision, Alamo Foundation, where the Supreme Court held that a volunteer is, among other things, someone who works “without promise or expectation of compensation” and “for his own personal purpose or pleasure.” And, there, the Courts split. The Sixth Circuit held that the church members were volunteers, and the Tenth Circuit held they were not.

Why did the Courts split? The Sixth Circuit decided its case after the Tenth Circuit, and it held that the difference was because (a) the Tenth Circuit case involved children and (b) the Tenth Circuit case involved more than “spiritual coercion.”

Under Alamo Foundation, a worker cannot be held a “volunteer” if his work is coerced. A person who is coerced into working is not working purely “for his own personal purpose or pleasure.” The Sixth Circuit held that, in the Cathedral Buffet case, the workers, who were adults, were working because they felt it was expected of them to be “faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.” The Sixth Circuit held that, even if such religious dogma was considered to be coercive, it is “spiritual coercion,” and as such insufficient to transform a volunteer into an “employee” under FLSA. However, the Court held that in the Tenth Circuit’s case, the workers were children and, further, in its own case, the Tenth Circuit highlighted facts suggesting more than mere spiritual coercion. For example, the Tenth Circuit pointed to evidence, including “one child (who) stated that if she had not worked, she would have lost her family and been kicked out of the community.”

Non-profits that benefit from the work of volunteers, especially church-related non-profits, should carefully review these two new cases.

Source: Acosta v. Cathedral Buffet, Inc.case no. 17–3427 (6th Cir. 4/16/18); Acosta v. Paragon Contractors Corp., case no. 17-4025 (10th Cir. 5/13/18).

When an “interstate” driver isn’t, but is …

Both federal law (the Fair Labor Standards Act, “FLSA”) and Colorado law (the Colorado Minimum Wage Act, the Colorado Wage Claim Act, and the Colorado Minimum Wage Order) exempt “interstate drivers.” Under FLSA, a driver can be considered “interstate” if she, like taxi drivers, is subject to the federal Motor Carrier Act, even where she drives only within the state. This means taxi drivers are not entitled to overtime under federal law.

In this case, the Colorado Court of Appeals affirmed the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment’s view that Colorado intended a stricter approach. According to the Court and the DOLE, Colorado’s overtime exemption does require that a driver actually drive across state lines as part of their job. Accordingly, the Court held, Colorado taxi drivers are entitled to overtime under state law, even though they would not be under federal law. As the Court explained, FLSA permits states to adopt stronger protections for employees than federal law. Here, the Court held Colorado did so because Colorado’s overtime exemption is worded slightly differently than FLSA’s.

Remaining issues include the applicability of this ruling to “gig” drivers, like those who drive through Uber or Lyft. Also, while this case has held that taxi drivers who don’t actually drive in and outside the state are entitled to overtime, it did not address whether other parts of Colorado wage law, including minimum wage requirements, also apply to such drivers.

Source: Brunson v. Colorado Cab Company, LLC, case no. 16CA1864 (1/8/18).

DOL revives self-reporting program

The United States Department of Labor (DOL) has revived its Payroll Audit Independent Determination (PAID) program, which is designed to allow employers who suspect they have violated the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) to self-report the suspected violation and get the DOL’s take on the situation. Unfortunately that’s about all an employer gets.

The program is open to employers who suspect they’ve underpaid workers, unless the employer is already involved in an audit, litigation or has received a demand from an employee or their attorney. Unfortunately the DOL doesn’t say what happens if the employer self-reports and then receives the demand, does that kick the employer out of the PAID program?

We aren’t likely to find out because the PAID program offers very little real benefit to a self-reporting employer. On its face, it is supposed to allow an employer to self-report and, in doing so, self-identify their own calculations of backpay owed. If the DOL agrees, it will then process the payments to workers. Although that is likely helpful to mitigate against penalties — especially in cases that involve a large total amount at-issue, consisting of small payments to individual workers, incurred as a result of an inadvertent violation — participation in the program doesn’t result in either the employees or the DOL waiving future claims, audits, litigation, etc.

Participating in the program comes with an especially high price. In order to be eligible, the employer must effectively lay out a plaintiff’s case, by submitting the following information to the DOL (quoting the DOL):

  1. specifically identify the potential violations,

  2. identify which employees were affected,

  3. identify the timeframes in which each employee was affected, and

  4. calculate the amount of back wages the employer believes are owed to each employee.

Source: US DOL PAID program.

DOL adopts Primary Beneficiary test for interns under FLSA

The U.S. Department of Labor has adopted the Primary Beneficiary test for deciding whether an intern must be paid as an employee or can be treated instead as an unpaid intern. This brings the DOL into alignment with a number of circuit courts, including the Sixth, Ninth and Eleventh. The Primary Beneficiary test is generally seen as more favorable towards employers and students who wish to be treated as unpaid interns.

The Primary Beneficiary test asks, given the “economic reality” of the relationship, whether the putative intern or the company is the real “primary beneficiary” of the relationship. When asking that question, the DOL and courts that follow this test consider the following seven factors (quoting new DOL Fact Sheet #71):

  1. The extent to which the intern and the employer clearly understand that there is no expectation of compensation. Any promise of compensation, express or implied, suggests that the intern is an employee—and vice versa.
  2. The extent to which the internship provides training that would be similar to that which would be given in an educational environment, including the clinical and other hands-on training provided by educational institutions.
  3. The extent to which the internship is tied to the intern’s formal education program by integrated coursework or the receipt of academic credit.
  4. The extent to which the internship accommodates the intern’s academic commitments by corresponding to the academic calendar.
  5. The extent to which the internship’s duration is limited to the period in which the internship provides the intern with beneficial learning.
  6. The extent to which the intern’s work complements, rather than displaces, the work of paid employees while providing significant educational benefits to the intern.
  7. The extent to which the intern and the employer understand that the internship is conducted without entitlement to a paid job at the conclusion of the internship.

Colorado minimum wage increase effective 1/1/18 to $10.20/$7.18

Effective 1/1/18, Colorado increased its minimum wage to $10.20 or, for tipped employees, $7.18.

Source: Colorado Department of Labor Minimum Wage web page.

DOL proposes reversing course on Obama-era tip-pooling rule

The U.S. Department of Labor has issued a proposed rule that would reverse an Obama-era tip-pooling rule, which has proven controversial since its issuance. As previously reported in this blog, the courts have split over whether — and the Tenth Circuit has joined the majority that hold that — employers need not comply with the tip-pooling rule if they otherwise meet the Fair Labor Standards Act’s minimum wage requirements. These courts hold that the tip-pooling rule is merely a condition of claiming the credit for tips against the minimum wage; if an employer does not claim the tip credit — if the employer pays at or above the minimum wage — then the tip-pooling rule does not apply. One part of the tip-pooling rule prohibits employers from sharing tips with any worker in a position that is not customarily and regularly tipped, such as dishwashers, cooks, etc. Thus, by paying tipped employees (e.g., waiters) at or above the minimum wage, without claiming the tip credit, employers are free to require a tip pool that is shared with other employees, even dishwashers, cooks, etc. This proposed rule would confirm this view in the formal FLSA regulations, in other words, that the tip-pooling rule only applies as a condition of claiming the tip credit. The proposed rule would codify the approach already taken by the Tenth Circuit.