The top story on Employment Law This Week: Casino trainees could be entitled to minimum wage.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit recently revived a class action suit from a group of trainees at a casino in Maryland. Applicants who wanted to work the casino’s new table games were expected to attend a 12-week “dealer school,” during which they went mostly unpaid. Several of the trainees sued, alleging that the practice violated the Fair Labor Standards Act. Though the district court dismissed the case, the Fourth Circuit ruled that the company could be found to be the primary beneficiary of the training and remanded the case for further fact-finding. Our colleague Nathaniel Glasser, from Epstein Becker Green, goes into further detail.

View the episode below or read more about this story in a previous blog post.

Our colleague Michael Kun, attorney at Epstein Becker Green, has a post on the Wage & Hour Defense Blog that will be of interest to many of our readers in the hospitality industry: “Clarification of California’s Obscure ‘Suitable Seating’ Wage Rule Likely to Lead to More Employers Providing Seats – and to More Class Actions Against Those Who Don’t.”

Following is an excerpt:

The Court explained, “There is no principled reason for denying an employee a seat when he spends a substantial part of his workday at a single location performing tasks that could reasonably be done while seated, merely because his job duties include other tasks that must be done standing.”

The California Supreme Court’s opinion should help employers assess whether and when to make seating available to employees.  And employers should review their practices promptly to try to comply with the law.  Now that the California Supreme Court has provided some much needed guidance on the issue, employers can expect that their practices will be challenged, and those challenges will often come in the context of class action lawsuits.

Read the full post here.

Our colleague Michael S. Kun, a Member of the Firm at Epstein Becker Green, has a post on the Wage and Hour Defense Blog that will be of interest to many of our readers in the hospitality industry: Taco Bell Employees Likely Are Not Celebrating Their ‘Victory’ in California Meal and Rest Period Class Action.”

Following is an excerpt:

More than a few media sources have reported on the March 10, 2016 wage-hour “victory” by a class of Taco Bell employees on meal period claims in a jury trial in the Eastern District of California. A closer review of the case and the jury verdict suggests that those employees may not be celebrating after all — and that Taco Bell may well be the victor in the case.

The trial involved claims that Taco Bell had not complied with California’s meal and rest period laws. The employees sought meal and rest period premiums and associated penalties for a class of employees that reportedly exceeded 134,000 members.

Now, it is certainly true that, at trial, a class of employees prevailed on a claim that Taco Bell did not comply with California meal period laws for a limited period of time (2003-2007), when Taco Bell reportedly provided employees with 30 minutes of pay when they were not able to take meal periods, rather than the full one-hour of pay provided for by California law.

And it is certainly true that the class of employees was awarded approximately $496,000 on that claim.

But as it appears that there were more than 134,000 employees in the class, a few punches on the calculator show that, on average, each employee would receive approximately $3.70. …

 Read the full post here.

Our colleague Jeffrey H. Ruzal recently wrote an article entitled “Illinois Court Holds That Meal Credit Program Is Valid,” which appears in the September 2014 issue of Hospitality Law.

Following is an excerpt:

Providing an employee meal program may be a nice gesture, but requires companies that do so to maintain proper records in case their meal plans are challenged.  An Illinois appellate court recently affirmed a circuit court’s dismissal of plaintiff restaurant worker’s class action claim that defendant restaurant employer took improper deductions from plaintiff’s wages to fund a meal credit program. 

Read the full article here.

Reprinted with permission from Hospitality Law. Copyright 2014 by LRP Publications. Palm Beach Gardens, FL 33418. All rights reserved. For details on this or other related products, visit www.shoplrp.com/hospitality.html or call toll free 1-800-341-7874

By Marisa S. Ratinoff and Amy B. Messigian

One of the main battlegrounds between employers and employees relates to the ability of employers to preclude class actions by way of arbitration agreements containing class action waivers. In California, the seminal case of Gentry v. Superior Court (“Gentry”) has had the practical effect of invalidating class action waivers in employment arbitration agreements since 2007. Gentry held that an employment class action waiver was unenforceable as a matter of California public policy if the class action waiver would “undermine the vindication of the employees’ unwaivable statutory rights” under the Labor Code. Thus, California hospitality employers and national hospitality employers with a business presence in California have found it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to enforce class action waivers in their employment arbitration agreements over the past seven years and have seen scores of California wage and hour cases proceed in court under the harsh hand of Gentry.

The landscape changed drastically in 2010 when the United States Supreme Court issued its decision in AT&T Mobility, LLC v. Concepcion (“Concepcion”). There, the Supreme Court held that the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”) preempts state laws or policies that deem arbitration agreements unconscionable and unenforceable on the basis that they preclude class actions. While the Concepcion case related to a consumer arbitration agreement, many have questioned whether its impact extended to employment arbitration agreements, such as the ones invalidated on public policy grounds under Gentry.

Iskanian v. CLS Transportation Los Angeles, LLC is the first case to test this issue before the California Supreme Court. The decision takes one step forward and one step back. First, the Court held that Gentry has been abrogated by Concepcion. As such, courts may not refuse to enforce an employment arbitration agreement simply because it contains a class action waiver. The Court further rejected the argument that a class action waiver is unlawful under the National Labor Relations Act.

However, the Court also found that an employee’s right to bring a representative action under Private Attorney General Act (“PAGA”) is nonwaivable. Under PAGA, an employee may bring a civil action personally and on behalf of other current or former employees to recover civil penalties for Labor Code violations. Of the civil penalties recovered, 75 percent goes to the State of California and the remaining 25 percent go to the “aggrieved employees.” The Court held that “an arbitration agreement requiring an employee as a condition of employment to give up the right to bring representative PAGA actions in any forum is contrary to public policy.” The Court also found that “the FAA’s goal of promoting arbitration as a means of private dispute resolution does not preclude [California’s] Legislature from deputizing employees to prosecute Labor Code violations on the state’s behalf.” The Court explained that PAGA waivers do not frustrate the FAA’s objectives because the FAA aims to ensure an efficient forum for the resolution of private disputes, whereas a PAGA action is a dispute between an employer and the State, which is being brought in a representative capacity by the employee. Because the State derives the majority of the benefit of the claim and any judgment is binding on the government, it is the “real party in interest,” making a PAGA claim more akin to a law enforcement action than a private dispute. Because of this, it is within California’s police powers to enact PAGA and prevent the waiver of representative PAGA claims.

The practical effect is that even if a class action waiver is enforceable, any purported waiver of a representative PAGA action will be unenforceable. As a result, a complaint filed in court that includes a PAGA cause of action will arguably remain with the court unless the claims are bifurcated. As for Iskanian and his former employer, the Court left these questions to the parties to resolve. While it is possible that Iskanian will be appealed to the United States Supreme Court for guidance, at least for the foreseeable future employers should expect plaintiffs’ counsel to include PAGA causes of action in order to frustrate employer efforts to move wage and hour claims to arbitration.

Going forward, hospitality employers may want to consider adopting agreements with their California employees that expressly permit representative PAGA claims to be brought in arbitration while waiving all other class claims to the extent allowed by law. Alternatively, employers may revise their agreements to allow for bifurcation of claims or expressly exclude PAGA claims from the scope of the agreement. In either case, employers should use this opportunity to review the terms of their arbitration agreements and put new agreements in place with California employees, if necessary.

By Michael Kun

Several years ago, employees in California began filing class action lawsuits against their employers alleging violations of the “suitable seating” provision buried in the state’s Wage Orders.  The unique provision requires some employers to provide “suitable seating” to some employees when the “nature of their work” would “reasonably permit it.” 

The use of multiple sets of quotation marks in the previous sentence should give readers a good idea just how little guidance employers have about the obscure law.  

The California Supreme Court is now poised to explain what that obscure law means for those employers who do business in California.  And the Court’s ruling could mean that restaurants in California will have to provide seats to hosts, hostesses and line cooks, or that hotels and other institutions will have to provide seats to their front desk staffs.

A little history: The “suitable seating” provision was written to cover employees who normally worked in a seated position with equipment, machinery or other tools.  For decades, it had been the subject of little litigation and even less discussion.  But after a court of appeal decision brought the obscure law to the attention of plaintiffs’ lawyers in California, employers in a wide variety of industries have been hit with class actions alleging that they have not provided seats to their employees.  Like many class actions, those cases have typically been brought by a single plaintiff who was well aware that the employer expected him or her to be standing while performing the job at the time he or she applied for a job.  Just as typically, those employees have not even requested a seat before filing suit and seek recovery of millions of dollars.

To date, the parties and courts dealing with these lawsuits have done so largely in the dark.  Simply put, there is little case law or legislative history explaining what the provision’s various terms mean or how they are to be applied or analyze.  Which employees are covered by the law?  What is a “suitable seat”?  What does the “nature of their work” mean?  What does “reasonably permit” mean?  What should be considered?  What should not be considered?

Earlier this year, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals threw up its hands and asked the California Supreme Court to clarify the law.  It asked the California Supreme Court whether the term “nature of the work” refers to individual tasks that an employee performs during the day, or whether it should be read “holistically” to cover a full range of duties.  It also asked the California Supreme Court to clarify whether an employer’s business judgment should be considered in determining whether the nature of the work “reasonably permits” the use of a seat, as well as the physical layout of the workplace and the employee’s physical characteristics.  Finally, it asked the California Supreme Court to clarify whether the employee must prove what would constitute a “suitable seat” to prevail.

After some speculation that the California Supreme Court might decline to answer these questions, it agreed to do so.  While the process will take time, employers in California should finally have much-needed guidance on this obscure law, allowing them to alter their practices as necessary and avoid these class actions.

Depending on what the California Supreme Court says, its opinion could have a great impact upon the hospitality industry. 

A few examples:

Hosts and hostesses at restaurants and clubs often stand behind a desk or podium when greeting customers.  Such employees (or their lawyers) might argue that they could perform their jobs just as effectively from a high stool or a half-seat. 

What about line cooks?  The thought of line cooks working while seated is an unusual one.  But, again, such employees (or their lawyers) might argue that they could do their jobs while seated.  Can an employer consider the layout of the kitchen?  Can it consider whether seats would block the often-tight passageways in the kitchen?  Can it consider the safety and health implications?  How about whether placing seats in the kitchen would violate local fire ordinances?

Like hosts and hostesses in restaurants, the staffs at the reception desks at hotels, spas and other institutions typically are standing while greeting and assisting customers.  Could they do their jobs while seated on a high stool or a half-seat?  Can a hotel take the position that the physical layout of the reception area would not allow chairs at the reception desk?

While the California Supreme Court’s decision is unlikely to address any of these hospitality-based questions specifically – the cases before it do not involve the hospitality industry – hospitality employers will need to review the decision carefully to determine whether the Court’s opinion suggests that some of its employees must be provided with seats.

By:  Kara Maciel, Adam Solander and Lindsay Smith

As the Employer Mandate compliance deadline looms for employers under the Affordable Care Act (“ACA”) and employers are closely monitoring employee hours, it is critical that employers take appropriate and lawful steps to record all hours worked by an employee.  If employers try to play games and manipulate how time records are maintained, they could find themselves in hot water under both the ACA and the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”). 

In what appears to be one of the first lawsuits challenging how hours are recorded under the ACA, an employee filed a putative collective action against Sun Holdings, LLC, a fast food franchisee.  The employee, a busboy at a Golden Corral restaurant, alleged that his managers required him to work under his real name and an alter ego to avoid paying him for all hours worked.  This set-up allegedly was designed to avoid having to pay overtime compensation under the FLSA and to count him as a full-time employee eligible to receive health benefits under the ACA.   

Accurate calculation and recording of the total number of hours worked by an employee is essential to compliance with the provisions of both the FLSA and the ACA.  Under the FLSA, an employer must pay an employee at least the minimum wage for all hours worked.  An employer must also provide overtime compensation at one and a half times the employee’s regular rate of pay for any hours worked in excess of 40 hours per week, unless that employee is classified as exempt.  Therefore, if an employer attributes some amount of time worked by one employee to an alter ego through which the employee cannot claim his time, the employee may be deprived of the overtime compensation he has earned.

Additionally, the ACA only provides benefits to employees who reach a certain amount of hours and binds employers with a certain amount of employees meeting that hour threshold.  The ACA applies to employers with 50 or more employees working 30 or more hours per week.  Only those employees working 30 hours or more per week are entitled to the health care coverage required by the ACA.  Therefore, an employee may lose the benefits to which he would otherwise be entitled if a portion of his hours worked is attributed to someone else, causing him to fall below the 30-hour minimum.  Furthermore, an employer may avoid the obligations of the ACA if it records 30 hours or more of work time for less than 50 of its employees. Although the Employer Mandate, which puts the employer-provided coverage into effect, does not kick in for large employers until January 1, 2015, applicability of the ACA depends upon the size of the affected workforce during the prior calendar year.      

A claim of this kind could be very costly for an employer because, as is the case here, such claims are often brought as collective actions.  In this case, the employee filed his claim on behalf of himself and all others similarly situated.  Although the amount of unpaid wages and liquidated damages he seeks only amounts to approximately $15,000.00, the franchisee owns roughly 400 restaurants in Texas and Florida.  Thus, a court award, or even a settlement, could be quite significant.

These allegations demonstrate the importance of correctly tracking employee hours and ensuring that an employee receives compensation and benefits in accordance with the total amount of hours worked.  Often times, this may mean training your managers as to the correct protocol for recording and compensating hours worked and monitoring to ensure managers are following that protocol. 

Importantly, this case forecasts what could be an emerging and growing area of litigation under the ACA, so employers must be ever vigilant about putting into practice protocols that ensure they are complying with the ACA and not manipulating hours to avoid the Employer Mandate’s requirements.  Considering that an analysis under the Employer Mandate’s look-back methodologies should be done this year, any changes to employees’ hours should be closely reviewed with legal counsel.  Although overtime compensation and benefits coverage can create increased financial burdens on employers, the cost of not complying can be even greater. 

Continue Reading Playing with Employees’ Hours Could Get You in Hot Water under the ACA and FLSA

By:  Kara M. Maciel

The following is a selection from the Firm’s October Take 5 Views You Can Use which discusses recent developments in wage hour law affecting the hospitality industry.

IRS Will Begin Taxing a Restaurant’s Automatic Gratuities as Service Charges

Many restaurants include automatic gratuities on the checks of guests with large parties to ensure that servers get fair tips. This method allows the restaurant to calculate an amount into the total bill, but it takes away a customer’s discretion in choosing whether and/or how much to tip the server. As a result of this removal of a customer’s voluntary act, the Internal Revenue Service (“IRS”) will begin classifying automatic gratuities as service charges, taxed like regular wages, beginning in January 2014.

This change is expected to be problematic for restaurants because the new treatment of automatic gratuities will complicate payroll accounting. Each restaurant will be required to factor automatic gratuities into the hourly wage of the employee, meaning the employee’s regular rate of pay could vary from day to day, thus adding a potential complication to overtime payments. Furthermore, because restaurants pay Social Security and Medicaid taxes on the amount that its employees claim in tips, restaurants are eligible for an income-tax credit for some or all of these payments. Classifying automatic gratuities as service charges, however, would lower that possible income-tax credit.

Considering that the IRS’s ruling could disadvantage servers as well, restaurants may now want to consider eliminating the use of automatic gratuities. Otherwise, employees could come under greater scrutiny in reporting their tips as a result of this ruling. Furthermore, these tips would be treated as wages, meaning upfront withholding of federal taxes and delayed access to tip earnings until payday.

Some restaurants, including several in New York City, have begun doing away with tips all together. These restaurants have replaced the practice of tipping with either a surcharge or increased food prices that include the cost of service. They can then afford to pay their servers a higher wage per hour in lieu of receiving tips. This is another way for restaurants to ensure that employees receive a sufficient wage, while simultaneously removing the regulatory burdens that a tip-system may impose.

The New DOL Secretary, Tom Perez, Spells Out the WHD’s Enforcement Agenda

On September 4, 2013, the new U.S. Secretary of Labor, Tom Perez, was sworn in. During his remarks, Secretary Perez outlined several priorities for the U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”), including addressing pay equity for women, individuals with disabilities, and veterans; raising the minimum wage; and fixing the “broken” immigration system.

Most notably, and unsurprisingly, Secretary Perez emphasized the enforcement work of the Wage and Hour Division (“WHD”). Just last year, the WHD again obtained a record amount—$280 million—in back-pay for workers. Employers can expect to see continued aggressive enforcement efforts from the WHD in 2013 and 2014 on areas such as worker misclassification, overtime pay, and off-the-clock work. In fact, Secretary Perez stated in his swearing-in speech that “when we protect workers with sensible safety regulations, or when we address the fraud of worker misclassification, employers who play by the rules come out ahead.” By increasing its investigative workforce by over 40 percent since 2008, the WHD has had more time and resources to undertake targeted investigation initiatives in addition to investigations resulting from complaints, and that trend should continue.

Federal Court Strikes Down DOL Tip Pooling Rule

In 2011, the WHD enacted a strict final rule related to proper tip pooling and service charge practices. This final rule was met with swift legal challenges, and, this summer, the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon (“District Court”) concluded that the DOL had exceeded its authority when implementing its final rule. See Oregon Rest. and Lodging Assn. v. Solis, No. 3:12-cv-01261 (D. Or. June 7, 2013).

Inconsistent interpretations of the FLSA among various appellate courts have created confusion for both employers and courts regarding the applicability of valid tip pools. One of the most controversial interpretations of the FLSA occurred in early 2010, when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that an employer could require servers to pool their tips with non-tipped kitchen and other “back of the house staff,” so long as a tip credit was not taken and the servers were paid minimum wage. See Cumbie v. Woody Woo, Inc., 596 F.3d 577 (9th Cir. 2010). According to the Ninth Circuit, nothing in the text of the FLSA restricted tip pooling arrangements when no tip credit was taken; therefore, because the employer did not take a tip credit, the tip pooling arrangement did not violate the FLSA.

In 2011, the DOL issued regulations that directly conflicted with the holding in Woody Woo. As a result, employers could no longer require mandatory tip pooling with back-of-the-house employees. In conjunction with this announcement, the DOL issued an advisory memo directing its field offices nationwide, including those within the Ninth Circuit, to enforce its final rule prohibiting mandatory tip pools that include such employees who do not customarily and regularly receive tips.

Shortly after the issuance of the DOL’s final rule, hospitality groups filed a lawsuit against the DOL challenging the agency’s regulations that exclude back-of-the-house restaurant workers from employer-mandated tip pools. The lawsuit sought to declare the DOL regulations unlawful and inapplicable to restaurants that pay employees who share the tips at least the federal or applicable state minimum wage with no tip credit. On June 10, 2013, the District Court granted the plaintiffs’ summary judgment motion, holding that the DOL exceeded its authority by issuing regulations on tip pooling in restaurants. The District Court stated that the language of Section 203(m) of the FLSA is clear and unambiguous; it only imposes conditions on employers that take a tip credit.

The District Court’s decision may have a large impact on the tip pool discussion currently before courts across the country, especially if employers in the restaurant and hospitality industries begin to challenge the DOL’s regulations. Given the District Court’s implicit message encouraging legal challenges against the DOL, the status of the law regarding tip pooling is more uncertain than ever. Although the decision is a victory for employers in the restaurant and hospitality industry, given the aggressive nature of the DOL, employers in all circuits should still be extremely careful when instituting mandatory tip pool arrangements, regardless of whether a tip credit is being taken.

Take Preventative Steps When Facing WHD Audits

In response to a WHD audit or inspection, here are several preventative and proactive measures that an employer can take to prepare itself prior to, during, and after the audit:

  • Prior to any notice of a WHD inspection, employers should develop and implement a comprehensive wage and hour program designed to prevent and resolve wage hour issues at an early stage. For example, employers should closely examine job descriptions to ensure that they reflect the work performed, review time-keeping systems, develop a formal employee grievance program for reporting and resolving wage and hour concerns, and confirm that all written time-keeping policies and procedures are current, accurate, and obeyed. Employers should also conduct regular self-audits with in-house or outside legal counsel (to protect the audit findings under the attorney-client privilege) and ensure that they address all recommendations immediately.
  • During a DOL investigation, employers should feel comfortable to assert their rights, including requesting 72 hours to comply with any investigative demand, requesting that interviews and on-site inspection take place at reasonable times, participating in the opening and closing conferences, protecting trade secrets and confidential business information, and escorting the investigator while he or she is at the workplace.
  • If an investigator wants to conduct a tour of an employer’s facility, an employer representative should escort the investigator at all times while on-site. While an investigator may speak with hourly employees, the employer may object to any impromptu, on-site interview that lasts more than five minutes on the grounds that it disrupts normal business operations.
  • If the DOL issues a finding of back wages following an investigation, employers should consider several options. First, an employer can pay the amount without question and accept the DOL’s findings. Second, an employer can resolve disputed findings and negotiate reduced amounts at an informal settlement conference with the investigator or his or her supervisor. Third, an employer can contest the findings and negotiate a formal settlement with the DOL’s counsel. Finally, an employer may contest the findings, prepare a defense, and proceed to trial in court.

In addition, employers should review our WHD Investigation Checklist, which can help them ensure that they have thought through all essential wage and hour issues prior to becoming the target of a DOL investigation or private lawsuit.

Following these simple measures could significantly reduce an employer’s exposure under the FLSA and similar state wage and hour laws.

On September 18, 2013, our hospitality practice attorneys, Kara Maciel and Mark Trapp, have the pleasure of speaking at the Lodging Conference in Scottsdale, Arizona on key financial and legal issues under the Americans with Disabilities Act impacting hotel owners and managers when acquiring, selling, developing or managing properties. 

Under the 2010 ADA Standards, which became effective in March of 2012, hotels must take steps to remove access barriers for individuals with disabilities. The new federal standards encompass some key changes for hotel owners, operators and developers.   Our Round Table discussion will focus on hot-button issues facing the hotel industry, including:

·         Why Owners and Managers Should Care about ADA Compliance when Purchasing / Selling / Developing / Managing a Property

·         Key Financial Issues In Acquiring / Selling Properties

·         Key Financial Issues in Developing New Construction / Renovating Older Properties

·         Key Financial and Operational Issues in Management Agreements 

·         Best Practices for Compliance under the ADA for Lodging Facilities

Attendees will leave the workshop better equipped to address the critical operational issues affecting their deals and profit margins, including:

·         How to conduct Due Diligence to minimize financial exposure and legal risks

·         How to negotiate and maximize your financial investment in a Purchase Sale Agreement

·         What issues are important in a Management Agreement

·         How to draft and implement employment and related policies to minimize the risk of ADA lawsuits

For more information about this important topic impacting the lodging industry, contact Kara or Mark. 

By Michael Kun

We have written previously in this blog about California’s obscure “suitable seating” law, which requires that some employers provide “suitable seating” to some employees.

In short, the plaintiffs’ bar recently discovered a provision buried in California’s Wage Orders requiring employers to provide “suitable seating” to employees when the nature of their jobs would reasonably permit it. The provision was not designed to cover employees in the hospitality industry who often stand to show that they are ready to assist customers. Instead, it was written to cover employees who normally worked in a seated position with equipment, machinery or other tools. Nonetheless, employers in a variety of industries have been hit with class actions alleging that they have violated those provisions – and those cases are typically brought by a single plaintiff who was well aware that the employer expected him or her to be standing while performing the job at the time he or she applied. Just as typically, those employees have not even requested a seat before filing suit.

Now, reversing a district court decision that dismissed a “suitable seating” class action on the grounds that there had been no request for a seat, the Ninth Circuit has held that an employee need not request a seat to be entitled to one.

The Ninth Circuit explained that the district court had read into the Wage Orders something that was not there – a requirement that employees affirmatively request seats. Importantly, the Ninth Circuit expressly declined to comment on whether the nature of the work would reasonably permit seats in the case at issue. As before, it appears that will be the dispute in most “suitable seating” cases.