Text Free Zone: OSHA's Distracted Driving Initiative Kicks Into Gear

By Casey M. Cosentino and Eric J. Conn

“Texting while driving” is an epidemic in America, which has prompted forty-two states and the District of Columbia to ban (completely or partially) this conduct for drivers.  Here’s a map of the U.S. states that have enacted some ban on texting while driving.  Studies suggest that texting while driving distracts drivers’ cognitive focus and removes their eyes from the road and hands from the wheel.  It is not surprising, therefore, that distracted driving is attributed with sixteen percent (16%) of all traffic fatalities in 2009.

The consequences of texting while driving are also seen in work-related accidents, as motor vehicle accidents are among the leading cause of worker fatalities.  Due to the political attention that texting while driving is garnering and the high number of employee deaths caused by motor vehicle accidents, OSHA has launched a Distracted Driving Initiative in partnership with the Department of Transportation to combat this safety issue.

According to OSHA, sending and reading text or email messages is a workplace safety hazard that employers are legally obligated to prevent under the OSH Act’s General Duty Clause.  For instance, OSHA finds that workers are exposed to a hazard when an incoming text from a supervisor or an urgent email request from a client draws their focus away from the road.   Notably, formal or informal incentive programs (i.e., monetary bonuses for making a certain number of deliveries per hour or day) are the heart of OSHA’s Distracted Driving Initiative.  The agency believes the root cause of texting while driving is employers’ policies that leave employees no option but to text or email on the go.   According to OSHA, therefore, employers violate the General Duty Clause when their policies or practices:

1.         Require texting/emailing while driving;

2.         Create incentives that encourage or condone texting/emailing while driving; or

3.         Are structured in such a way that texting is a practical necessity for workers to carry out their job duties.

When OSHA determines that employers’ policies contribute to cell-phone related accidents, it will issue General Duty Clause citations, which carry maximum penalties of $70,000 per Willful or Repeat violation or $7,000 per Serious violation.  As a result of the Distracted Driving Initiative, employers should implement a workplace safety culture that explicitly prohibits texting while driving on the job or in company-owned vehicles.  Indeed, employers should draft or revise cell-phone usage policies to declare all vehicles “text-free zones,” including posting of such signage in company vehicles.

Effective policies should alert managers, supervisors, and employees that the company neither requires nor tolerates sending or reading text/email messages while driving.  The policies should also stress safe communication practices and incorporate procedures that eliminate financial or other incentive programs that encourage or require texting while driving in order to carry out job duties.  Additionally, employers should review such policies during training, education sessions, and new hire orientation programs.

OSHA has promised swift action upon learning of distracted driving accidents or receiving credible complaints from employees that their employers require or organize work so that texting while driving is a practical necessity.  OSHA is forthright in its position on distracted driving, and it will not hesitate to issue citations and penalties where necessary.  Given OSHA’s aggressive enforcement record over the past three years, we expect the agency to be on the lookout for a poster-child employer to use as an example for others under the new Distracted Driving Initiative.

Hotel Operators and Managers Remain Vulnerable to Wage and Hour Class Actions

By:  Casey Cosentino

A hotel management company was recently hit with a putative class action in federal court for allegedly failing to compensate hotel employees overtime pay at one and one-half times their regular rate of pay for all hours worked over 40 hours in a workweek. As the chief engineer, the lead plaintiff was classified as an executive employee and, thus, was exempt from overtime requirements under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”). The lead plaintiff asserts, however, that he was misclassified under the Executive exemption because he “regularly and routinely performed non-exempt tasks . . . including but not limited to, upkeep of the hotel and its grounds, and building and property maintenance; and supervised no more than one other employee.” As such, the complaint contends, among other things, that he and other similarly situated employees unlawfully worked between 50 and 60 hours per week without receiving overtime pay. 

As evidenced by this case, a constant issue challenging the hospitality industry is the proper classification of employees as exempt under the Executive exemption when those employees regularly and routinely perform non-exempt duties. By way of background, the FLSA requires employers to pay employees at one and one-half times their regular rate of pay for hours worked in excess of 40 hours; however, there are exemptions from overtime pay for an employee employed as bona fide executive, professional, administrative, outside Sales, and computer professional. Specifically, to qualify for the Executive exemption, employees must meet all of the following requirements:

1.              The employee must be compensated on a salary basis at a rate not less than $455 per week;

2.              The employee’s primary duty must be managing the enterprise, or managing a customarily recognized department or subdivision of the enterprise;

3.              The employee must customarily and regularly direct the work of at least two or more other full-time employees or their equivalent; and

4.              The employee must have the authority to hire or fire other employees, or the employee’s suggestions and recommendations as to the hiring, firing, advancement, promotion or any other change of status of other employees must be given particular weight.

A “primary duty” under the Executive exemption is the “principal, main, major or most important duty that the employee performs.” 29 C.F.R. § 541.700(a). Notably, an executive employee is not precluded from exempt status for performing non-exempt work when his/her primary duty is to perform managerial duties such as interviewing, directing work, appraising work performance, and delegating assignments. Determination of an employee’s primary duty is based on all the facts in a particular case, and not solely on the amount of time spent on a particular aspect of the employee’s job. Indeed, “[e]mployees spending less than fifty percent of their time on managerial aspects can nonetheless satisfy the primary duty requirement under other relevant facts of the case,” including:   

·         Importance of exempt duties as compared with other types of duties;

·         Amount of time spent performing exempt work;

·         Employee’s relative freedom from direct supervision; and

·         Relationship between the employee’s salary and the wages paid to other employees for the kind of nonexempt work performed by the employee.

29 C.F.R. § 541.700(b).

Most industries have experienced the tidal wave of wage and hour class action suits with respect to misclassifying exempt employees, and the hospitality industry is no exception. Because it is common for exempt employees in the hospitality industry to perform non-exempt duties, hotels classifying or planning to classify employees under the Executive exemption should ensure that their primary duty is managerial functions. Moreover, as a best practice, prudent hotel operators should regularly review their wage and hour practices to ensure compliance with federal and state laws. In doing so, hotel operators should: (1) review and update employee classifications and job descriptions; (2) audit their payroll practices with an emphasis on overtime calculation, meal and rest break periods, and salary deductions; and (3) determine whether “preliminary” and “postliminary” job tasks are compensable work time. Identifying and correcting wage and hour mistakes before plaintiffs collectively march to the courthouse is vital to defending class action wage and hour suits and reducing legal liability.

FTC Warns That Background Searches via Mobile App May Violate the Fair Credit Reporting Act

by Jeffrey M. Landes, Susan Gross Sholinsky, Steven M. Swirsky, and Jennifer A. Goldman

 

On January 25, 2012, the Federal Trade Commission ("FTC") sent warning letters to three companies that market, in total, six mobile phone applications ("Apps") that provide users with background check reports. In the warning letters, the FTC states that the Apps may violate the Fair Credit Reporting Act ("FCRA"). According to a press release issued by the FTC on February 7, 2012, the FTC cautioned the Apps' marketers that, if they have reason to believe that the background reports provided will be used for employment screening, housing, credit, or other similar purposes, both the users of the Apps and the marketers of the Apps must comply with the FCRA.

Read the full advisory online

EBG's Free Wage-and-Hour App For iPhone and iPad Is Now Available

By Michael Kun

As wage-and-hour litigation is more prevalent than ever, we believe that employers everywhere need easy access to federal and state wage-and-hour laws. With that in mind, we are pleased to announce that EBG’s free Wage-and-Hour app is now available in the Apple iTunes Store for downloading. The app puts federal wage-and-hour laws at your fingertips, along with those laws of many states. You can find the app by using the search term “Wage Hour” or by simply clicking here.    We hope you will enjoy it.

Class Action Arbitration Bans - the Obama NLRB Attempts to Trump the Federal Arbitration Act and the Supreme Court

by David D. Green, Frank C. Morris, Jr., Allen B. Roberts

Two recent decisions on arbitration, one from the National Labor Relations Board ("NLRB" or "Board") and one from the Supreme Court of the United States, present an interesting question: Can employers limit employees from launching potentially costly class actions? Some employers have applicants or new employees sign a separate agreement, or include a clause in application forms or in the employee handbook (which employees acknowledge), requiring employees to bring future disputes to arbitration and to agree that the arbitration will be individual only – not a class or collective action. These companies apparently hope that arbitration, and the avoidance of a jury trial, will be less costly than defending a court action if a dispute arises. They also hope to eliminate the attraction and risk of class and collective actions, which often are seen as providing undue leverage and a larger total payday to claimants and their attorneys.

Read the full advisory online

 

U.S. DOL And California Team Up To Crack Down On Misclassification Of Workers As Independent Contractors

By Michael Kun

Last week, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division and the California Secretary of Labor announced that they were teaming up to crack down on employers who classify workers as independent contractors. 

The announcement that the two groups would work together on such an initiative should not come as much of a surprise to employers.  Shortly after Hilda Solis took office as the U.S. Secretary of Labor, the Wage and Hour Division announced that it would be focusing on this issue.  And California has enacted a new statute that provides additional penalties in cases where workers are found to have been misclassified as independent contractors.  Simply put, the classification of workers as independent contractors is today’s “hot issue.”

While last week’s announcement may not be a surprise, it serves as a valuable reminder to employers that contract out services that they should review those relationships closely to ensure that workers are properly classified as independent contractors – and to make careful changes to the relationship should they not be.  Why must those changes be careful?  Because in some jurisdictions, including California, changes to practices can be construed as evidence that the past practice was unlawful.  In this way, seeking to correct a problem can lead to the very lawsuit you were seeking to avoid.

Unfortunately, there is not a single, universally accepted definition of “independent contractor.”  The IRS has one definition.  The DOL has another.  Various federal and state agencies have their own definitions, and the courts have crafted even more definitions in the tort and employment contexts. What the various definitions all have in common is the element of control.  To the extent an employer controls the manner in which a worker provides services – setting hours of work, providing the tools for the work, directing the manner in which the work is performed, or otherwise controlling the worker’s activities – those could all be indicia of an employment relationship, rather than an independent contractor relationship.  Similarly, if the worker wears the employer’s uniform, wears a badge with the employer’s name on it, or provides the worker with business cards bearing the company’s name, that could also suggest that the worker in fact is an employee, not an independent contractor.  The fact that you may call the worker an “independent contractor,” or that you have a contract using that term, ultimately means little.  It’s the actual relationship that will govern in any analysis.

Employers who have independent contractors performing the same work as their employees should be particularly concerned about these issues.  And those who reacted to the recession by laying off employees, only to bring back those same persons to perform the same job as independent contractors – without benefits, payroll withholdings and workers’ compensation – are squarely within the crosshairs of federal and state agencies.  And plaintiffs’ lawyers.

But they are not the only ones who should review their relationships with persons or companies with which they contract for the provisions of services.  Employers who contract with janitorial services -- or office management services, or catering services -- should also review those relationships, particularly if they are with companies whose funding is suspect.  If the employees of those companies don’t get paid, or don’t get paid properly, it’s not unusual for them to claim that they in fact were employed not just by that company, but you.  And if you give directions to that janitor – or office services person, or server – don’t be surprised if the DOL claims that he or she is your employee. 

 

Mandatory Employee Arbitration Agreements: The NLRB Throws a Wrench into Their Enforceability

By:  Forrest G. Read, IV

Arbitration agreements can be an effective way for employers in the hospitality industry to streamline and isolate an employee’s potential claims on an individual basis and protect themselves from a proliferation of lawsuits with many plaintiffs or claimants. But the National Labor Relations Board’s (“Board”) January 6, 2012 decision in D.R. Horton, Inc. and Michael Cuda, notably finalized by two Board Members on departing Member Craig Becker’s final day, has caused significant confusion as to how employers can enforce such arbitration agreements with their employees over employment claims, including wage and hour disputes. 

In D.R. Horton, the Board concluded that an employer commits an unfair labor practice under the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”) when it requires, as a condition of employment, its employees to sign an arbitration agreement that precludes them from filing, in any forum, any class or collective claims addressing their wages, hours or other working conditions against the employer. However, the Board’s decision in D.R. Horton appears to be inconsistent with, if not directly contradicts, a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding the validity of class action waiver provisions in consumer arbitration agreements under the Federal Arbitration Act, which many employers and members of the labor and employment bar interpreted as extending to waiver provisions in employment-related agreements.

Notwithstanding the Supreme Court’s unmistakable and consistent pro-arbitration stance, the Board in D.R. Horton directly concluded that Supreme Court precedent regarding arbitration agreements did not apply to the employment context.  The Board’s decision is controversial because it was issued by two Members leaving employers left to question its validity and confused as to which precedent to follow.  In addition, it represents another example of the Board’s willingness to insert itself into matters outside the traditional unionized workplace and find NLRA violations outside the labor-management realm.

D.R. Horton is also controversial because it places courts at an intersection of whether to follow and apply Board or Supreme Court precedent.  Indeed, since the Board’s ruling in D.R. Horton, at least one court in New York weighed in on the issue and, in following Supreme Court precedent, tentatively ruled that D.R. Horton does not apply in the wage-hour context where the employee had voluntarily entered into an arbitration agreement not as a condition of employment. But the court noted that D.R. Horton may have applied and led to a different conclusion if the argument had been made that the arbitration agreement had been presented to the employee in a confusing fashion or had operated through compulsion by the employer (even if presented voluntarily).

In short, the question of whether employment-related arbitration agreements are enforceable will remain a murky one until D.R. Horton, currently a hindrance to hospitality employers that seek to compel individual arbitration of wage and hour claims with their employees, is appealed and decided upon by an appellate court. In the meantime, employers should be cautious about the application of such agreements. Any current arbitration agreements (particularly those that include class action waivers) should be reviewed for enforceability, and perhaps suspended depending on how the waiver provisions were worded and the circumstances under which they were agreed to. In addition, hospitality employers should carefully consider whether and how to present new arbitration agreements to employees and scrutinize the agreement’s waiver provisions before they are executed.