The DOL’s Wage & Hour Division “Dusts-Off” Shelved Opinion Letters

By Robert A. Boonin, Dykema Gossett PLLC, rboonin@dykema.com

In 2009, shortly after the prior administration first took office, it pulled-back 17 Wage & Hour Opinion Letters that were finalized near the end of the Bush Administration. On January 5, 2018, the DOL republished all of those Opinion Letters, and by doing so, the DOL has firmly gotten back into the Opinion Letter business.

THE USE AND HISTORY OF WAGE AND HOUR OPINION LETTERS

The FLSA provides that opinions issued by the Wage and Hour Administrator, if relied upon by employers and if directly applicable to the employers’ circumstances, are absolute defenses to claims for back pay and liquidated damages for overtime violations.   In other words, if the Opinion Letter applies AND was relied upon, the employer can get a “free pass” even if the DOL is later found by a court to have reached the wrong opinion. Thus, for decades, the availability and use of Opinion Letters had been widely used and served to not only limit liability, but perhaps more importantly, allowed employers to be assured that – at least in the DOL’s opinion – a pay plan being used or considered was consistent with the FLSA’s often-times nuanced provisions.

In 2009, as the Bush Administration was winding down, the Wage and Hour Administrator announced that it was publishing a number of Opinions, Opinions that had been pent-up in the process for being finalized. Almost immediately after taking office, though, the Obama administration put a hold on or withdrew many of those Opinions, and its “hold” was never released. The DOL did not issue any FLSA Opinion Letters thereafter, and in March 2010, the new Wage and Hour Administrator announced that Opinion Letters would no longer be provided. Instead, the DOL announced, it would only periodically issue Administrator Interpretations (AIs) on the FLSA, and these AIs would be more generic in form than the fact-specific Opinions previously issued.

THE OPINION LETTER CONCEPT IS RESTORED BY SECRETARY ACOSTA

Soon after taking office last year, Labor Secretary Acosta announced that he would be restoring the use of Opinion Letters. This announcement was welcomed by many in the employer, and even some in the employee, community since these letters do provide a level of certainty needed as play plans are developed, particularly pay plans that are creative or being adjusted to reflect the realities of the modern economy. On January 5, 2018, the DOL delivered on the Secretary’s promise and activated all 17 Opinions put on hold in 2009.

Among the new Opinions are:

  • A clarification that deductions are permissible to salaries of a salaried/exempt employee, in that if the employee is absent for a full-day but only has a partial day of paid leave available to cover the absence, the employee can be docked for the balance of the day (FLSA2018-14);
  • If job bonuses are provided for a day’s work, that bonus must be rolled into the employees’ regular rates of pay for overtime pay calculation purposes (FLSA2018-11);
  • When calculating a year-end bonus as a percentage of all straight time and overtime earned over the year, the employer can exclude previous payments made that are otherwise excludable from the regular rate of pay (FLSA2018-9);
  • School athletic coaches who are volunteers or are not otherwise employed by the school in an non-teaching capacity, may be treated as exempt from the Act’s pay requirements since they are effectively still exempt “teachers” under the Act (FLSA2018-6);
  • On call time spent by ambulance personnel who work 30 hours per week, but who may be on call for another 40 hours, is not compensable in light of the frequency of calls and the time needed to take the calls, and that conclusion is not changed by the fact that the personnel have to appear when called within 5 minutes and in uniform, in light of the totality of the facts presented (FLSA2018-1); and
  • Based on the facts present, the follow employees were viewed as being exempt from overtime pay: construction project superintendents (FLSA 2018-4), client service managers for an insurance company (FLSA2018-8), and consultants, clinical coordinators, coordinators and business development managers employed by a medical staffing company (FLSA2018-12), but helicopter pilots were found to be nonexempt (FLSA2018-3).

It is anticipated that new Opinion Letters will be published in the near future, particularly once a new Wage and Hour Administrator is confirmed by Congress.

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