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Considering a voluntary internal audit to prepare for Colorado’s new equal pay law?

Last year I co-authored an article for the Colorado Lawyer about Colorado’s new equal pay law (the Colorado Equal Pay for Equal Work Act, “CEPEWA”), with two of CEPEWA’s drafters, Sarah Parady and Charlotte Sweeney. CEPEWA will take effect January 1, 2021. In our article, we noted that CEPEWA “CEPEWA does not grandfather current pay disparities” and further that “proof of intent to discriminate is not an element of a CEPEWA violation.” We recommended employers consider performing a voluntary internal audit to identify and eliminate any inadvertent pay disparities. Indeed CEPEWA recognizes a possible reduction of exposure if internal audits are done.

A new article was just published in the Colorado Lawyer discussing what such an audit might look like.

Source: Mind the Gap: Practical Solutions to Minimize Pay Equity Claims, by Christine Lyman, Lonnie Giamela, and LaLonnie Gray, The Colorado Lawyer, vol. 49 no. 5 (May 2020)

CDLE issues revised Wage Protection Act Rules

On March 16, 2020, the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment (CDLE) issued amendments, effective that same day, to its prior Wage Protection Act Rules. The amendments added language that articulated the CDLE’s opinion that Colorado state law on the Joint Employer doctrine is and, in its opinion, has always been contrary to federal law.

COMPS Order 36 takes effect with some changes

Colorado Overtime and Minimum Pay Standards (COMPS) Order 36 took effect March 16, 2020 with some revisions and additional commentary by the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment.

First, in another Statement of Basis, Purpose, Specific Statutory Authority, and Findings for Adoption as Temporary or Emergency Rules, the CDLE issued a multi-page detailed explanation of its opinion that Colorado state wage-hour law on the Joint Employer doctrine is and, in its further opinion, has been contrary to and stricter than federal law. The CDLE announced there it will soon commence regulatory rulemaking on the Joint Employer doctrine to further solidify its reading of Colorado state wage-hour law.

The Statement also clarified what information needs to be included in paycheck statement eliminating prior proposed requirements that CDLE concedes “make() no sense.”

In an email to stakeholders distributing the revisions on March 16, 2020, the CDLE also advised of grace periods it will permit in light of the on-going coronavirus events, as follows:

(B)       Division Operations, and Compliance Grace Periods

            As of now, the Division remains fully operational. Based in part on potential delays to employer internal operations that have been called to the Division’s attention, the Division has adopted the following policies to grant what leniency it can, within the confines of existing law, for the coming weeks.

(1)   COMPS-required paperwork (posters, handbook inserts, acknowledgements, etc.) – compliance by 4/16/20 will be sufficient. To the extent that COMPS requires new paperwork from employers (new posters, handbook inserts, acknowledgement forms, etc.), the Division will deem compliance within the first month of COMPS – i.e., by April 16th – to be sufficient to qualify as compliant.

(2)   No Division-initiated investigations of new COMPS rules until 4/16/20. While the Division by statute must investigate any claims filed with us, the Division’s “Direct Investigations” team launches its own investigations, based on tips, leads, and known problem sectors. For the first month of COMPS being in effect (i.e., until April 16th), Direct Investigations will not launch new investigations based on violations of new COMPS rules.

(3)   Deeming violations of new COMPS provisions rules non-willful if remedied by 4/16/20. As noted above, the Division cannot by statute reject a claim filed shortly after COMPS takes effect. But to the extent that a violation committed within the first month of COMPS is solely of a new obligation under COMPS, the Division will deem the violation not “willful” if the employer remedies it within the first month of COMPS – i.e., by April 16th.

(4)   Starting tomorrow, March 17th, no new “notices of claim” will be sent to employers until April 1st. This is for all wage claims, not just those related to COMPS. Because some employers may be currently struggling to keep up with mail receipt, the Division will postpone mailing any new “notice of claim” – the mailing that tells an employer that a claim has been filed against it – because by statute, a notice of claim starts a 14-day clock for the employer to avoid penalties by paying any wages due. A longer extension would risk backlogging claims, but the Division aims for this period of just over two weeks to postpone employers’ receipt of mail that starts a statutory deadline.

Restaurants and other employers with tipped employees, beware relying on DOL opinion letter

As previously posted, the DOL issued an opinion letter in 2019, purporting to jettison the Obama Administration’s 80-20 rule and expanding the ability to claim tip credits for tipped employees, specifically, during time when they do not earn tips (example, while wait staff vacuum and clean). Bloomberg BNA reports that opinion letter has met with rejection in the courts:

Restaurant chains have lost at least seven decisions over the last year in which federal district court judges refused to give deference to a 2018 Labor Department opinion letter advising restaurants to pay a lower minimum wage to tipped workers for tasks that don’t yield gratuities.

In most of those decisions, judges held that DOL wasn’t justified in turning its back on a standard that’s been in place for more than three decades.

Also as previously posted, the DOL issued a propose regulation to the same effect, which if finalized would become law, to which courts should defer in lawsuits.

Employers are reminded that Colorado law requires additional notice-posting to employees if a tip credit is to be claimed.

Colorado finalizes new wage order, COMPS Order no. 36, 7 CCR 1103-1 (2020)

As noted in a previous post, Colorado proposed a new wage order in 2019. On January 22, 2020, the Colorado Division of Labor and Employment finalized its new order — now called COMPS order #36 — effective March 16, 2020.

As noted in the previous post, COMPS order #36 is  radical overhaul of Colorado’s prior wage orders. Among other things the changes include:

  • A title change: Reflecting the fact that this new order addresses far more than simple wages, its title will change from the “Colorado Wage Order” (WO) to the “Colorado Overtime and Minimum Pay Standards Order” (COMPS).
  • COMPS 36 will now reach almost all private employers in Colorado. Previous WOs had applied only to the following four industries: retail and service, commercial support service, food and beverage, and health and medical. COMPS will apply to all employers as a general rule, unless the employer falls within one of the newly defined exemptions set forth in prosed Rule 2 of COMPS. Therefore employers who previously considered themselves exempt from the WOs should now review COMPS to determine if it will become covered.
  • Minimum guaranteed salary: If covered COMPS will increase the minimum guaranteed salary to $42,500, effective 7/1/20, well above that in federal law. COMPS minimum will rise steeply thereafter, each year, to $57,500 effective 1/1/26 and be adjusted thereafter per the CPI.
  • Changes to particular job-specific exemptions have been proposed.
  • Changes to the timing of required rest periods and a requirement that employees who are not allowed their 10-minute rest period receive pay not only for the 10-minute rest period but an extra 10 minutes pay.
  • Changes to the ability to take credits and the ability to charge for uniforms.
  • Changes to the fluctuating workweek method of calculating overtime.
  • Expansion of anti-retaliation protections.
  • Expansion of employer obligations as to “transparency,” “language inclusiveness” and posters.

In addition, the as-finalized COMPS order #36 dramatically expanded the definition of an “employee” and “employer” in Colorado — in apparent reflection of similar narrowing in California — by mandating that a worker will be deemed an “employee” not an independent contractor who otherwise meets all requirements to be an independent contractor but who performs work that is itself part of the company’s own regular business. The CDLE explained this “entirely new factor to the ’employee’ analysis'” in its Statement of Basis, Purpose, Specific Statutory Authority, and Findings in support of COMPS Order #36, as follows:

For example: if a retail clothing store hires an outside plumber on a one-time or sporadic basis to make repairs as needed, the plumber’s services are not part of the store’s primary work — selling clothes. On the other hand, when a clothing manufacturer hires work-at-home seamstresses to make dresses, from cloth and patterns supplied by the manufacturer, that the manufacturer will sell, or when a bakery hires cake decorators to work on a regular basis on custom-designed cakes, the workers are performing the “primary work” of the hiring business.

Other changes to the prior draft order include a rule that workers who are putting on and taking off work clothes and gear (so-called “donning and doffing” cases) are engaged in work and accordingly must be paid for the such time if it takes “over one minute” and if it is not clothes/gear that is “worn outside work as well. Additionally COMPS order #36 will effectively require that, when a 10-minute break is otherwise required, nearly all such workers will need to be made to take their 10-minute breaks every 4 hours. Only workers who work under collectively bargained agreements that say otherwise will be allowed to take breaks outside a 4-hour period, as can some workers who work for certain Medicaid-funded entities.

Perhaps most importantly the final order also implemented a slower increase in the required guaranteed minimum salary for overtime exempt person in 2020 and 2021, then a steeper climb in 2023 to reach the previously planned 2024 minimum salary of $55,000.

Source: final COMPS Order #36 as redlined by the CDLE against its prior draft.

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.

Colorado criminalizes wage theft

Effective January 1, 2020, Colorado has criminalized wage thefts. This new law applies to “employers,” a term defined to be commensurate with the Fair Labor Standards Act’s coverage, and protects “employees,” as defined to exclude independent contractors.

Under this new law it will be a crime to:

  • willfully
  • refuse to pay or “falsely” deny “the amount of a wage claim, or the validity thereof, or that the same is due”
  • “with intent to secure for himself, herself, or another person any discount upon such indebtedness or any underpayment of such indebtedness”
    • “or with intent to annoy, harass, opress, hinder, coerce, delay, or defraud” the employee.”

Who may be charged with this crime? “Every employer or other person who intentionally, individually or as an officer, agent, or employee of a corporation or other person” who “pays or causes to be paid to any such employee a wage less than” that required.

This new crime will rise to the level of a felony if the amount at-issue equals or exceeds $2,000.

Employers, including all individuals involved in the payroll function and related decisions whether or not to pay wages, should anticipate that employees will seek to have such matters prosecuted, in addition to or instead of civil wage claims. This new Colorado law is all the more reason for employers to carefully review their wage compliance efforts.

Reminder, Colorado employers, new ban-the-box law will take effect soon

Colorado employers are reminded that Colorado’s new ban-the-box law will take effect September 1, 2019 for employers with more than 10 employees (then September 1, 20121 for all other employers). Together with the crop of other new Colorado employment laws this year, Colorado employers should:

  • Review and revise their handbooks, workplace policies, and hiring documents accordingly.
  • Review and revise their hiring and promotion practices.
  • Consider undertaking an audit of pay levels as encouraged now by HB19-085.
  • Review wage compliance practices.
  • Train supervisor, manager and HR accordingly.

Gov. Polis signs three new Colorado laws into effect

The Denver Business Journal is reporting that Colorado Governor Polis has signed three new Colorado laws into effect. As the DBJ reports, each came with some opposition and will have impacts on employers in Colorado.

Gov. Jared Polis on Monday signed a trio of bills that he said will improve the fortunes of working-class Coloradans — even as opponents have criticized the measures will make life harder for employers and possibly steer companies away from expanding in Colorado.

These laws are:

  1. Colorado House Bill 19-1025 is a “Ban the Box” law. It restricts, with some exceptions, an employer’s ability to inquire, especially on applications, about prior criminal history.
  2. Colorado House Bill 19-1210, which permits local governments to increase the minimum wage in their jurisdictions above Colorado’s statewide minimum.
  3. Colorado HB 19-1306, which requires the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment to report “data that it currently collects regarding the call center work force, including tracking call center jobs and wage analysis of customer service employees,” quoting the bill’s official summary.

These laws now join in effect, the previously signed (May 22, 2019) HB19-085 (Equal Pay for Equal Work Act) and (May 16, 2019) HB19-1267 (criminalizing “wage theft” in cases of willful failure to pay wages owed).

Taken together, employers have good reason to immediately:

  • Review and revise their handbooks, workplace policies, and hiring documents accordingly.
  • Review and revise their hiring and promotion practices.
  • Consider undertaking an audit of pay levels as encouraged now by HB19-085.
  • Review wage compliance practices.
  • Train supervisors, managers and HR accordingly.

 

Third Circuit expounds on class actions in wage claims

A class action is a way for one or more persons to sue on behalf of a voluminous group of similarly situated persons. The idea is that the claim may not be financially worthwhile for one or a few people to prosecute, but where many people have suffered the same wrong, it makes sense for them to litigate the claims all at once, just as it is more efficient for the courts and defendant.

Wage claims are often for relatively small amounts, when one considers only one plaintiff, but can be for huge amounts when prosecuted on behalf of a claim. Wage claims though aren’t technically called a class action. Wage claims are prosecuted under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which provides for “collective” actions; whereas, class actions are prosecuted under Rule 23 of the Rules of Civil Procedure.

What’s the difference between a class action and a collective action? Well, there aren’t many, but the few differences there are, are indeed significant. The biggest difference is conceptual and practical. In a class action, the judge declares a “class,” and members can opt out if they don’t wish to be part of the lawsuit. In a collective action (a FLSA wage claim), the judge declares the potential class, but members have to opt in to become part of the lawsuit.

There are other significant differences in terms of the procedures and standards court follow at the start of the case. Those differences can drive significant outcomes in terms of settlement strategies and litigation approaches.

Still, the differences can be as subtle as they are sometimes significant, triggering relatively frequent litigation in the courts. The Tenth Circuit has, for example, said, in a 2001 decision (Thiessen) that there is “little difference in the various approaches”  under Rule 23 for class actions versus FLSA for collective actions. However the Third Circuit, in a recent decision, Reinig v. RBS Citizens, N.A., held the differences, though often slight, are significant enough that an appeal involving the one did not give it jurisdiction to consider issues related to the other. The Third Circuit, therefore, declined to decide whether certification of a collective action under FLSA was appropriate, even though it did decide that certification of a class under Rule 23 was inappropriate. The court left the collective action certification for the lower court and later litigation.

In so ruling, the court did, though, hold that the class action Rule 23 certification — the issue on appeal before it — had been improper. The Court clarified that, in order to prove that the plaintiffs’ lawsuit alleging “off the clock” work was appropriate for class certification, Rule 23 required them to prove that they, and the requested class members, could all show that their rights were violated using the same evidence of liability. It was not sufficient to prove that they had all been wronged by the same employer, that they had all been shorted wages to which they should have been entitled, or even that they had all been shorted in the same way. Rule 23, the Third Circuit held, requires that they prove they, and the requested class, could establish their cases using common evidence.

As for the merits of their claim, the Third Circuit opined that, to prove an off-the-clock work claim, the plaintiffs would need to show they had worked off the clock, which constituted overtime, and that the employer had at least “constructive knowledge” of the same. The court did not explain what would constitute “constructive knowledge.”

To satisfy their wage-and-hour claims, Plaintiffs must show that: (1) pursuant to Citizens’ unwritten “policy-to-violate-the-policy,” the class MLOs performed overtime work for which they were not properly compensated; and (2) Citizens had actual or constructive knowledge of that policy and of the resulting uncompensated work.  See Kellar v. Summit Seating Inc., 664 F.3d 169, 177 (7th Cir. 2011) (citing Reich v. Dep’t of Conservation & Natural Res., 28 F.3d 1076, 1082 (11th Cir. 1994)); see generally Davis v. Abington Memorial Hosp., 765 F.3d 236, 240–41 (3d Cir. 2014).  Thus, to satisfy the predominance inquiry, Plaintiffs must demonstrate (1) that Citizens’ conduct was common as to all of the class members, i.e., that Plaintiffs’ managers were carrying out a “common mode” of conduct vis-à-vis the company’s internal “policy-to-violate-the-policy,” and (2) that Citizens had actual or constructive knowledge of this conduct.  See Sullivan, 667 F.3d at 299; Dukes, 564 U.S. at 358; see also Tyson Foods, Inc., 136 S. Ct. at 1046 (explaining that, although a plaintiff’s suit may raise “important questions common to all class members,” class certification is proper only if proof of the essential elements of the class members’ claims does not involve “person-specific inquiries into individual work time [that] predominate over the common questions”).  

The Third Circuit’s holding that class and collective actions are sufficient different that it lacked jurisdiction over issues re the one even though it had jurisdiction over issues re the other firmly establishes a split among the Circuits on the issue. Interested readers may wish to check if either party seeks Supreme Court review.

Source: Reinig v. RBS Citizens, N.A.case no. 17-3464 (3rd Cir. 12/31/19).

Supreme Court ruled driver wasn’t required to arbitrate

The Supreme Court held that a driver for a trucking company need not arbitrate wage and related claims, even though the driver is technically an independent contractor, not an employee. In reaching its holding, the Supreme Court, first, decided that such driving falls within the Federal Arbitration Act’s exclusion for transportation workers, meaning, the Court held, the FAA does not apply. The FAA is of course the federal law that permits the arbitration of federal lawsuits. Next, the Supreme Court held that the FAA’s exclusion applies not only to employees but independent contractors.

Applicability of the decision is expected to be argued in a number of pending cases, including lawsuits brought by independent contractors who drive for social media based delivery services.

Source: New Prime, Inc. v. Oliveira, case no. 17-340 (1/15/19).

Would-be class action plaintiffs jujitsu Uber’s arbitration agreement

In a move Bruce Lee would have admired, a group of 12,501 drivers seeking to assert wage-hour and related claims against Uber — faced with having each executed arbitration agreements — have filed a Petition in the federal courts for the Northern District of California demanding just that, 12,501 individual arbitrations.

The Petition illustrates what is likely to become a powerful tactic for would-be class/collective action plaintiffs who find themselves otherwise stymied by arbitration agreements that do not permit class/collective actions. As reported here, the U.S. Supreme Court recently endorsed arbitration agreements as effective tools against class/collective action litigation. This move turns that tool back onto the employer itself.

The drivers allege that, as early as August 18, 2018, they began submitting claims to arbitration under the arbitration agreements. The drivers allege that, as of the time of the Petition, 12,501 demands for arbitration had been submitted.

Of those 12,501 demands, in only 296 has Uber paid the initiating filing
fees necessary for an arbitration to commence. Out of those matters, only 47 have
appointed arbitrators, and out of those 47, in only six instances has Uber paid the
retainer fee of the arbitrator to allow the arbitration to move forward..

Why hasn’t Uber (allegedly) paid the arbitrator’s retainer fees in the other cases? Well, if true, it might be related to the (alleged) fact that (according to the Petition, the fee in each such case is a “NON-REFUNDABLE filing fee of $1,500 for each.” As in, according to the Petition, a total of $18,681,000 (12,501-47x$1,500), just to start each of the 12,501 cases.

Are the Uber drivers asking the court to, therefore, let them out of their arbitration agreements? Are they asking the court to allow them to pursue a class/collective action in court? No, because that would be contrary to recent Supreme Court decision. Instead, they’re asking the Court to order Uber to comply with the (alleged) arbitration agreements, starting by paying the initial arbitration fees. The Petition seeks other relief to include an order requiring Uber to continue to participate in each of the 12,501 arbitrations and to pay the drivers’ attorney fees and costs in prosecuting their Petition.

 

California Court of Appeals rejects double-dipping for penalties in certain wage-hour cases

California state law provides for penalties and other liability under California’s Private Attorney Generals Act when an employer fails to provide an accurate, itemized wage statement (which statements must contain certain types of information further specified under California law). But what if the statement was correct when issued but later the employer is held liable for additional amounts, such as overtime or minimum wage amounts? Do otherwise correct wage statements become retroactively inaccurate because the employer is later held liable for additional amounts like overtime or minimum wage? Contending that it does, it has not been uncommon in California for plaintiffs in wage-hour casesto file wage-statement claims demanding the extra penalties.

A division of the California Court of Appeals recently rejected double-dipping, holding that, no, the wages statement do not become retroactively inaccurate, such that an employer becomes liable for extra wage-statement related penalties when they are found liable for amounts like overtime and minimum wage.

Source: Maldonado v. Epsilon Plastics, case no. B278022 (Cal.App. 4/18/18).

California adopts ABC Test for gauging independent contractor classification

The California Supreme Court announced a new test for determining whether a worker is truly an independent contractor or an employee under California’s wage orders (regulating wages, hours and working conditions).

(I)n determining whether, under the suffer or permit to work definition, a worker is properly considered the type of independent contractor to whom the wage order does not apply, it is appropriate to look to a standard, commonly referred to as the “ABC” test, that is utilized in other jurisdictions in a variety of contexts to distinguish employees from independent contractors. Under this test, a worker is properly considered an independent contractor to whom a wage order does not apply only if the hiring entity establishes:

(A) that the worker is free from the control and direction of the hirer in connection with the performance of the work, both under the contract for the performance of such work and in fact;

(B) that the worker performs work that is outside the usual course of the hiring entity’s business; and

(C) that the worker is customarily engaged in an independently established trade, occupation, or business of the same nature as the work performed for the hiring entity.

This new test continues California’s approach to scrutinizing whether the relationship includes a right to control and direct the work (test A) and whether the worker is engaged in an independent trade (test C), but adds a focus on whether the worker is doing “work that is outside the usual course” of the company’s own business (test B).

Companies that use independent contractors to do work that is within the company’s own “usual course” of work, much less that is being done by its own employees, should take special care to review this new test and determine if they are in compliance.

Source: Dynamex Operations v. Superior Court, case no. S222732 (Cal. 4/30/18).

Supreme Court upholds mandatory pre-dispute arbitration agreements, even when they bar class/collective actions

In a 5-4 decision the Supreme Court may have given employers — at least in some states — to block class and collective actions. The Court ruled that mandatory pre-dispute arbitration agreements are enforceable under the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA), even in employment cases, and even as a block against class/collective actions. The Court had previously so ruled in the context of consumer contracts. In this case, the Supreme Court extended that ruling to employment agreements.

This ruling means companies can now lawfully require — at least under federal law — both consumers (as a condition of buying their product or service) and now employees (as a condition of working for the company) to agree,

  • Before any dispute ever arises,
  • To submit any future possible disputes to arbitration,
  • Instead of litigating them in court, and
  • Unless otherwise spelled out in the arbitration agreement, to waive any future rights to participate in class or collective actions.

In extending its ruling to employment cases, the Court rejected the argument that the National Labor Relations Act protects an employee’s right to join class/collective actions.

Perhaps of greatest importance the Court signaled a sharp curtailing of precedent holding that courts must defer to administrative agencies. That principle is called Chevron deference (after the Supreme Court’s 1984 decision in Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc.). Chevron deference has become highly controversial and is seen by conservative legal theorists as the chief vehicle for creation of the so-called administrative state. Here the issue of Chevron deference was raised because the National Labor Relations Board had held that the statute it oversees, the National Labor Relations Act, does include protection for class/collective actions and therefore should have rendered illegal the agreement at-issue. Over a heated dissent, the Supreme Court rejected the argument that the Board’s interpretation of the NLRA was entitled to deference. Whether this portends an end to Chevron deference or will prove an isolated ruling remains to be seen.

A “collective” action is like a class action. Some laws, notably, some wage-hour laws (such as minimum wage and overtime laws) permit “collective” actions instead of class actions. Simply put, the difference is that in a class action, the judge declares the existence of a class, and class members opt out of the class if they do not wish to participate; whereas, in a collective action, members must opt in to join the class.

Employers that have previously been concerned about stepping into the waters of mandatory pre-dispute arbitration agreements may now wish to consult with counsel about doing so. Employers should remember that, although this is a strong case for employers, it does not necessarily apply to claims brought under state laws, and some states, notably both New York and California, have taken strong positions against this type of agreement.

Source: Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis, case no. 16-285 (5/21/18)

“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).

Individual liability possible for wage claims, in Colorado

In a 2003 decision, Leonard v. McMorris, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that the Colorado Wage Claim Act does not itself create statutory liability for individuals who own or manage a company. But what about other theories?

In a recent decision, Paradine v. Goei, the Colorado Court of Appeals held that Leonard does not foreclose personal liability. Rather, it simply held that the Colorado Wage Claim Act itself cannot be a vehicle for imposing personal liability. The Colorado Court of Appeals held in this case that there are, at least, two other “well-established” theories for holding an individual liable for the acts of a company: “peircing the corporate veil, and when an officer acts on behalf of an undisclosed principal.” Oversimplifying these two principles, (1) the first allows a person to be held liable for the acts of his entity if, in running that entity, he has not obeyed corporate formalities and ignored the distinction between the entity and himself; (2) the latter allows a person to be held liable when he seems to have acted on his own behalf but later wishes to claim, unbeknownst to the plaintiff, that he was actually acting behind an entity.

In this case the Court of Appeals held the plaintiff had adequately pled a case to pierce the corporate veil and was, therefore, entitled to seek discovery in pursuit of his allegations. In particular the court noted the plaintiff alleged that the individual collected the company’s money to be used to pay wages, used the company’s revenues for “his own personal use” and “diverted corporate funds” to pay his own expenses, including his “apartment lease” and “vehicle payments,” treating the company as his “alter ego” while commingling bank accounts and credit cards.”

Paradine will no doubt stimulate the filing of individual liability claims in Colorado wage cases.

Source: Paradine v. Goei, case no. 16CA1909 (Colo.App. 4/19/18).

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.

Colorado Supreme Court holds statute of limitations on wage claims runs from pay period following its due date

The Colorado Supreme Court held that the statute of limitations under the Colorado’s Wage Claim Act, CRS. 8-4-101 to -123, begins to run from the pay period when the wage first becomes due and is unpaid.

The facts of the case illustrate the importance of this holding. Like many states, Colorado’s wage claim laws permit an employee to sue at the time of termination for any unpaid wages. Most commonly wage claims involve amounts that are claimed due in that final paycheck, for example, vacation pay, but what about wages that were claimed due in prior periods? This case involved a group of workers who sought wages “as far back as 1992.” Colorado’s wage laws, like federal law (Fair Labor Standards Act, FLSA), set a 2-year statute of limitations on wage claims, or 3 years if the violation is deemed wilful. The plaintiffs argued that the Act allowed them to seek all of their claimed wages, going back decades. In contrast, the company argued that they could seek only wages that came due in their final paycheck, nothing earlier.

The Colorado Supreme Court disagreed with both parties, holding that the plaintiffs can seek any wages that came due in their final paychecks plus any that came due in the 2 years preceding their termination (or 3 if the claim is deemed wilful), but that they cannot seek wages going back farther than that.

We conclude that under section 109, terminated employees may seek wages or compensation that had been earned in prior pay periods but remain unpaid at  termination. This right, however, is subject to the statute of limitations in section 122, which runs from the date when the wages first became due and payable—the payday following the pay period in which they were earned. A terminated employee is thus limited to claims for the two (or three) years immediately preceding termination.

It is noted that the Court there said plaintiffs could seek claims for 2 (or 3) years “immediately preceding termination;” however, it would seem from the language of the Act and the Court’s own reasoning that the Court meant “immediately preceding (the filing of their lawsuit seeking wages upon) termination.” That issue is likely to be litigated in future cases.

Source: Hernandez v. Ray Domenico Farms, Inc., case no. 17SZ77 (Colo. 3/5/18).