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Colorado Supreme Court holds vacation is a wage due in final paycheck

As noted previously, litigation over vacation payouts has been on-going at the trial court level then the appellate courts, and now finally the Colorado Supreme Court. The issue has been whether, despite various statutory changes to Colorado’s wage laws, vacation is a “wage” that must be paid out in the employee’s final paycheck. More specifically the issue has been whether employers can lawfully rely on a policy that puts a condition on the payout of wages.

In the case before the courts, the employer wrote its policy to say that vacation would not be paid out at termination unless the employee (a) resigned (b) after providing a 2-week notice of resignation.  The trial court and Court of Appeals each held that the policy controlled. Colorado law does not require that employees be given any vacation, and employers are free to determine at what rate workers earn vacation.

However, the Colorado Supreme Court reversed. The Colorado Supreme Court held, first, that, once a worker had earned the vacation, in a known amount, it was both “earned” and “determinable,” which is all the statute in Colorado requires for it to be owed. Second, the Court pointed to another provision in the statute that prohibits waivers and forfeitures of vacation, once it has been earned, and held that the policy’s conditions were, therefore, unenforceable. In short, the Court held that the employee had “earned” the vacation, and it was “determinable;” therefore, it was owed, and any policy language attempting to forfeit it was unenforceable.

Particularly aggressive employers may point out that, in this particular case, the vacation policy said that vacation was “earned” once the necessary hours were worked to accrue it. They may argue that such language limits the reach of this decision, and that, if the policy had been written to say no vacation was “earned” until the necessary accrual-hours were worked and 2-week notice of resignation were given — such employers might argue — the policy would have been effective. Employers are advised to consult with experienced legal counsel before attempting to rely on such an aggressive reading of the case.

Source: Nieto v. Clark’s Market, Inc., 2021 CO 48 (6/14/2021).

White House clears path for offers of paid time-off for vaccinations

The White House announced a tax credit for companies who wish to offer paid time-off for employees to be vaccinated. The credit is available to employers with fewer than 500 employees, and permits up to 80 hours/10 days of paid time off, up to $511 per day.

This new credit is not only welcome for employers seeking to avail themselves of it, but it also helps alleviate confusion over an employer’s ability to offer pay for time-off to be vaccinated.

Seventh Circuit holds that employers may have to provide paid USERRA leave if it provides pay for other comparable leaves

USERRA is the federal military leave law that requires employers to provide workers time-off for military-related leaves. USERRA leave is generally unpaid. However USERRA, sec. 4316(b),  provides that employees must receive “such other rights and benefits not determined by seniority as are generally provided by the employer of the person to employees having similar seniority, status, and pay who are on furlough or leave of absence under a contract, agreement, policy, practice, or plan in effect at the commencement of such or established while such person performs such service.”

The Seventh Circuit recently held in a case involving United Airlines that sec. 4316(b)’s “other rights and benefits” language includes “comparable” paid leave. The Seventh Circuit looked to DOL regulations, 20 CFR 1002.150(b), that explain paid leave is “comparable” and must be provided to USERRA leave-takers if is is comparable in terms of “the duration of the leave,” as well as “the purpose of the leave and the ability of the employee to choose when to take the leave.” However, it cautioned as to the last factor — the ability to schedule leave — an employee’s voluntary decision to enlist should not be considered.

Did United Airlines owe its pilot pay for time he took off for “periodic military-training sessions” under its jury duty policy, its sick leave policy or any of its “other short-term” paid leave policies? The Seventh Circuit held it did not have sufficient evidence to weight the comparability of such leaves; therefore, it remanded the case back to the trial court for further consideration.

Source: White v. United Airlines, Inc., — F.3d —, 2021 WL 365210 (7th Cir. 2/3/2021)

Colorado Court of Appeals rules for employer on vacation issue

In a previous post, it was noted that a case has been pending before the Colorado Court of Appeals involving an employer’s refusal to pay vacation at separation, despite the provisions of CRS 8-4-101 and a new regulation promulgated by the CDLE thereunder. The Court of Appeals has now ruled in the case, Blount v. Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, that the employer was within its rights to refuse to pay out the vacation because it had clearly stated in its vacation policy that “Unused Vacation Allowances are not paid to Team Member at any time, including upon termination of employment.” The unpublished decision was not selected for official publication. It is also noted, as explained in this blog’s previous post, that this ruling is in apparent conflict and arguably contrary to the CDLE’s recent regulations and that the issue is currently pending before the Colorado Supreme Court in a different lawsuit.

Three issues in Colorado regarding vacation pay

Colorado law, CRS 8-4-101 defines vacation to be a part of “wages” when “earned in accordance with the terms of any agreement. If an employer provides paid vacation for an employee, the employer shall pay upon separation from employment all vacation pay earned and determinable in accordance with the terms of any agreement between the employer and the employee.” As such, an employee cannot agree to waive vacation, or any other “wages,” once “earned, pursuant to CRS 8-4-121, and CRS 8-4-109 requires that such vacation, along with all other “wages,” to be paid out in final paychecks.

Despite what seems relatively clear statutory language on first blush, three issues persist. Colorado employers have received some fleshout on at least two.

1. Can an employer impose conditions on the payout of vacation in a final paycheck? The Colorado Court of Appeals says, yes.

A recent Colorado Court of Appeals case suggests the law may not be that simple. In  Nieto v. Clark’s Mkt., Inc. the employer added a twist in its handbook. There, a policy said that an employee “forfeits all earned vacation and pay benefits” if they fail to provide 2-week notice before quitting. The employee cited the foregoing statutes, arguing the vacation could not be waived and had to be paid out in the final paycheck.

The Court of Appeals held for the company. The Court of Appeals looked to the “terms of any agreement,” as required by the statute, in other words, to the language of the vacation policy and held that 2-week notice was a condition of earning the vacation.

Ms. Nieto’s right to compensation for accrued but unused vacation pay depends on the parties’ employment agreement. And that agreement unequivocally says that the vacation pay she seeks wasn’t vested given the circumstances under which she left the Market’s employ.

Is Nieto good law in Colorado, can employers rely comfortably on it? Many would argue that the Colorado Court of Appeals simply got it wrong. However, the deadline for appeal has now passed, so it is certainly the law as between Ms. Nieto and her former employer Clark’s Market, Inc. It is noted too that the decision was selected for official publication, so, unless the Court of Appeals or the Colorado Supreme Court revisit the issue in a future case, it is binding on trial courts. Therefore employers could arguably rely on it for now, so long as they are willing to risk protracted litigation and future appeals.

2. Can an employer apply a use-it-or-lose-it rule to vacation at the end of every year? The Colorado Division of Labor and Employment says, no, but the issue is pending in the Colorado Court of Appeals.

Pending before the Colorado Court of Appeals is Blount, Inc. v. CDLE, in which the Colorado Division of Labor and Employment is asking the Court of Appeals to rule against an employer’s purported use-it-or-lose-it policy. In an apparent effort to end-run the Court’s decision, the CDLE issued on the same day as it filed a brief in the appeal, a new rule (7 CCR 1103-7 rule 2.15) — which it then proceed to rely upon in its brief — stating that employers may not have use-it-or-lose-it policies. How will the Court of Appeals rule? How will the Court of Appeals view the CDLE’s apparent claim-jumping regulation? Will the Court of Appeals take Blount as an opportunity to re-consider or limit Nieto? Stay tuned.

3. Do these same rules apply to PTO or just vacation? The Division of Labor and Employment says, no, these restrictions do not apply to PTO.

As of this summer, callers to the Colorado Division of Labor and Employment will be told it takes the position that these “vacation” rules do not apply to PTO. CRS 8-4-101 speaks only to the inclusion of “vacation” in “wages,” not PTO; therefore, the Division will not currently pursue an administrative wage claim for PTO.

Notwithstanding, employers should realize that some plaintiff attorneys will take such claims to court, but they do so under a contract law theory, not under Colorado’s wage statutes, and as a contract claim, such claims do not carry attorney fees or penalties.