U.S. Labor Department Continues its Review of White Collar Overtime Pay Rules

As we approach the two-year mark since amended regulations for white collar overtime pay were set to go into effect under the Obama administration, the U.S. Department of Labor continues to collect information anew as part of its reevaluation of the rules under Donald Trump. Later in October, the Department will hold what’s it’s calling a “listening session” in Washington, D.C. It is seeking input on several questions, including:

  • What is the appropriate salary level (or range of salary levels) above which the overtime exemptions for bona fide executive, administrative, or professional employees may apply?
  • What benefits and costs to employees and employers might accompany an increased salary level?
  • Should the Department more regularly update the standard salary level and the total-annual-compensation level for highly compensated employees?

It’s unclear whether or when new white-collar regulations will take effect. Following a review process that lasted more than two years and included hundreds of thousands of public comments, the Department of Labor planned to implement new regulations on December 1, 2016. The changes would have required that, if white-collar workers were to be exempt from overtime pay requirements, they earn at least $913 per week, roughly $47,000 annually, rather than the $455/week the rules now require. Highly paid workers in this category would have become exempt only if they earned $134,000 per year, up from the current $100,000. And the Department would have added an automatic updating mechanism to address inflation.

The Department’s plans were altered just after the November 2016 election of Mr. Trump when a Texas court blocked implementation of the Department’s new regulations. The Trump administration accepted the decision without substantive challenge after the Obama administration defended it for a time. The Department began its current review about a year ago.

Supreme Judicial Court Suggests the State’s New Non-Compete Statute can Apply to Agreements Created Before the Law Takes Effect

A decision issued today by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court is likely to strengthen employees’ hands in noncompetition enforcement disputes even more than is already presaged by the law set to take effect October 1. In a case that suggests how courts will handle conflicts between old and new law in noncompetition cases, the SJC affirmed dismissal of a suit brought by an employer who sought to drag its California employee to a Massachusetts courtroom. The decision is significant both because it struck down the parties’ contractual election of Massachusetts law and relied on public policies stated in an inapplicable statute in doing so.

The issue presented in Oxford Global Resources, LLC v. Hernandez is one commonly encountered in noncompetition litigation: where and under what law are disputes to be litigated? It’s now common for employees to work in states other than the ones where their employers are based, and non-compete agreements normally provide for enforcement only in the employer’s home state. This often means severe hardship for workers, who are prejudiced by the distance they are forced to travel, an inability to obtain relevant witness testimony, and extreme expense. While Massachusetts law will eliminate those issues by requiring all noncompetition agreements entered on or after October 1, 2018 to be enforced in the employee’s home county, the law will not apply to the numerous non-competes that already exist.

Hernandez is helpful to employees with such existing agreements on three distinct levels. First, the SJC concluded that the employer’s choice of Massachusetts law was invalid for public policy reasons; California, it held, has a distinct policy against restrictive covenants that should govern the activities of employees who work within its boundaries. Second, the SJC held that, despite the parties’ agreement that disputes be resolved in Massachusetts, the employee could move to dismiss the suit based on an inconvenient forum. And third, the Court looked to a public policy expressed in a California law that was enacted after the noncompetition agreement at issue.

It is this third point that may prove most significant in future noncompetition litigation in Massachusetts. The new law set to take effect next month includes several statements on public policy. Though the law won’t apply to non-compete agreements entered before October 1, 2018, Hernandez suggests that the policies it states are applicable to disputes that arise under preexisting law. Included among them are those addressed in Hernandez and others, including the new statute’s requirements for advance notice of noncompetition agreements, employer inability to enforce them when workers are fired without cause, and rules requiring that employees be paid in exchange for requirements that restrict their future employment.

Hiking of Minimum Wage to $15/Hour Makes its Way toward the Ballot Box for November 2018

Dissatisfied with the recent increase of the Massachusetts minimum wage to $11/hour and its failed efforts to get the state legislature to move the hourly rate to $15, a coalition of community, religious and labor groups has submitted the issue for referendum vote. Assuming the question moves through the process to the November 2018 ballot, Massachusetts voters will decide whether to increase the hourly rate to $15, a move that surely won’t go over well with some business people.

Proponents of the hourly wage increase are unmoved. They believe $15/hour is necessary to allow low paid workers to afford basic necessities such as groceries, housing and heating. As it is, they say, full-time workers earning the current minimum of $11/hour make only about $22,000 per year. About a million Massachusetts workers will benefit if the rate increase is approved, they contend, and most are above the age of 20. They include nursing assistants, childcare providers, and teachers’ aides, the group says. Anticipating objections to the wage hike, the coalition points out that, despite the increase in the minimum wage from $8 to $11 in recent years, the Massachusetts economy continues to grow strongly.

If approved at the ballot box, the minimum wage will increase by $1/hour each year for four years, beginning in 2019. The measure will also increase the minimum tip wage from $3.75 to $9/hour during the same 4-year period. Under Massachusetts law, tipped employees may be paid less than minimum if their hourly rate plus the tips they receive are equal to or exceed the minimum hourly wage. On December 21, 2017, the Massachusetts secretary of state confirmed that enough signatures were submitted to support the ballot measure. The proposed wage increase now moves to the state legislature, which will have the option to approve it prior to any voting by the public. If that does not occur by May 2, 2018 or if the governor fails to sign a passed measure into law, proponents of the minimum wage increase will need to obtain another roughly 11,000 signatures from Massachusetts voters by July 4 to place the question on the 2018 ballot.

Massachusetts Law Continues to Protect against Gender Identity Discrimination Despite Federal Pronouncment

When Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently announced that his Justice Department rejects the idea that transgender people are protected under Title VII, the federal workplace discrimination statute, it received quick condemnation from a variety of sources. Significant as the proclamation may be at the federal level, however, Massachusetts residents need not be concerned, or pleased, as the case may be. Under Mass. Gen. L. ch. 151B, transgender and gay people remain well protected against employment discrimination based on their gender identities. They can continue to file complaints based on it at both the MCAD and in state courts.

The federal action comes at a time when Mr. Sessions’ justice department has been hostile to Title VII protections of the broader LGBT community. His Justice Department has argued that civil rights laws do not protect against sexual orientation discrimination. Under Title VII, which was passed by Congress in 1964 as part of the Civil Right Act, discrimination based on “sex, ” among other things, is illegal. The Obama administration and others, including the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), have interpreted “sex” as covering individuals based on gender identity and sexual orientation.

Under the Massachusetts anti-discrimination statute, it’s unlawful for an employer, “because of the race, color, religious creed, national origin, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, which shall not include persons whose sexual orientation involves minor children as the sex object, genetic information, ancestry or status as a veteran of any individual to refuse to hire or employ or to bar or to discharge from employment such individual or to discriminate against such individual in compensation or in terms, conditions or privileges of employment, unless based upon a bona fide occupational qualification.”

Pregnant Workers will Enjoy Broad New Job Protections under Recently Signed Massachusetts Law

Massachusetts recently took another step to protect members of its workforce. Late in July, Gov. Charlie Baker signed the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which provides broad new rules for pregnant women. The law will take effect on April 1, 2018. Under it, employers must grant reasonable accommodations for pregnancies or any condition related to then, including “lactation, or the need to express breast milk” for children after they are born. Employers will be prohibited from the following:

  1. Taking adverse action against an employee who uses or requests a pregnancy accommodation;
  2. Refusing to reinstate an employee to her job after a reasonable accommodation period ends;
  3. Denying a pregnant employee workplace opportunities because of her pregnancy-related accommodation needs;
  4. Requiring an employee to accept pregnancy accommodations that are “unnecessary to enable the employee to perform the essential functions” of her job; or
  5. Knowingly refusing to hire a pregnant woman due to her pregnancy or a related condition, including her lactation needs.

Just as in other handicap accommodation situations, the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act exempts employers from compliance when doing so will cause an undue hardship. It also requires employers to engage in an interactive process to determine whether and what sorts of accommodations may work for pregnant employees who require them. Among the accommodations the Act suggests are required in all but unusual circumstances are more frequent restroom, food and water breaks; seating adjustments; and limits on lifting 20 pounds or more.

Though the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act does not take effect until April 1, 2018, employers must notify their employees about it by January 1, 2018. A new policy should be created and placed in employee handbooks and distributed to existing employees and all new hires.

Employees may be Free to Speak their Minds, but Employers are Free to React

Free speech is not always free. That seemingly obvious point was apparently lost on Google employee James Damore, a man making headlines recently after he was fired for writing a memo that opined women are unsuited to work as engineers. Google’s efforts to promote them, he wrote, were unfair and divisive.

So, too, was Mr. Damore’s opinion. Not surprisingly, it rankled many inside Google, which reacted by terminating Mr. Damore’s employment on August 7. Mr. Damore, supported by the likes of Juilian Assange and other political conservatives, responded by threatening legal action. “As far as I know,” he reportedly wrote, “I have a legal right to express my concerns about the terms and conditions of my working environment and to bring up potentially illegal behavior, which is what my document does.”

There’s little question that Mr. Damore is correct. As far as he knows, he may say whatever he likes to whomever he chooses. What he doesn’t seem to know, however, is that those around him have rights, too. People who hear his views have a right to be offended. They may disassociate themselves from him if they choose. Google and other private employers have the right to decide who works for them. They are not restricted by free speech guarantees in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Like Mr. Damore, private employers have their own form of free speech rights, and it includes the right to say “you’re fired” to workers who, in their judgment, are disruptive, potentially damaging to their business, or in any other way unsuitable to remain employees.

It’s unclear whether Mr. Damore will actually file his lawsuit or how, if he does, what his legal theory might be. But he fears not, no doubt, as he garners support and job offers from those who agree with his missives about women and work. He’s now a hero of sorts at the likes of Breitbart News and reportedly has a job offer at Wikileaks. Good for Mr. Damore, if this is what he intended. If not, he has learned what he should have known all along. He is free to speak, and the world around him can react to what he says.

Noncompetition Agreement Legislation Appears No Closer to Passage in Massachusetts

The effort to regulate the use of noncompetition agreements continues to languish in a legislative committee, where most of several competing proposals were referred early in 2017. Alongside them – or, as it were, within the same proposed bills – sits the uniform trade secrets act, a law aimed at protecting the advantage businesses enjoy from confidential trade information.

No fewer than six bills are now being considered by the Massachusetts Legislature’s joint committee on labor and workforce development. One proposed law would void restrictions on post-employment competition contained in written employment agreements while permitting limitations on solicitation of customers or employees in those same contracts to be enforced. Another would permit noncompetition agreements under specifically prescribed conditions, including 10-day advance notice for employees, opportunities to consult with counsel, and payment of wages during any restricted period of time. Some versions of the proposed law would ban noncompetes for lower level workers and limit them to time periods of between three and 12 months. Two bills require renewal of noncompetition agreements at regular intervals, and some permit enforcement of them only in the county where an employee resides.

It’s unclear whether or when the state Senate and House of Representatives will agree on and pass a version of noncompetition legislation or, if they ever do, whether the governor will sign it into law. Given the long history of failed efforts to ban these contracts, it seems most likely that, if any legislation is ever to become law, it will impose conditions on noncompetition agreements while permitting businesses to continue to enforce them where they are essential. Such enforcement might very well require that employers pay at least a portion of the wages their former workers will lose as a consequence of a noncompetition restriction.

Employers Get Another Reason to Carefully Review and Comply with Wage Laws

It’s no surprise that the reach of Massachusetts’ wage laws is long, and most employers know they need to carefully abide them if they want to avoid potentially dire effects. Still, courts sometimes seem to extend the law’s reach in surprising ways. When that happens, employers to which such rulings apply might first shudder a bit, then step back and review policies to be sure they are doing things properly.

A recent U.S. District Court decision may have such an effect. In Chebotnikov v. LimoLink, the court ruled that a trial was necessary to determine whether limousine drivers are employees or contractors. It went on to also conclude that gratuities charged to customers must be remitted to the drivers under the Massachusetts tips statute. That law requires that service charges or tips from customers “shall be remitted only to the wait staff employees, service employees or service bartenders” who provide the customer service at issue.

What’s interesting here is the award of tips to individuals who may or may not be employees despite the fact that the statute involved appears to apply only to that group. The court seemed moved in large part by the clear intention of the law: to ensure that service workers get the tips that customers intend for them and not their employers to receive. Employers who collect tips or charge costs to customers that might be interpreted as gratuities need not shudder at this ruling, perhaps, but certainly should review their practices to ensure they don’t get caught in the same situation as LimoLink apparently has.

Reasonable Accommodation Laws Apply to Use of Medical Marijuana in Massachusetts

If there was any doubt that employers need to be careful about disciplining employees who use medical marijuana, it was ended today by the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC). It held that employees who are prescribed medical marijuana to treat their health conditions are protected under Massachusetts handicap law. Both employers and managers involved in decisions to punish workers for off-site medical marijuana use can be sued for damages caused by their conduct, the SJC held.

The case’s significance is patent. Under both Massachusetts and federal law, handicapped employees are protected against discrimination. If they can perform their jobs with or without reasonable accommodation, employers cannot take adverse action against them due to their disabilities. Massachusetts places a heavy burden on employers to consider accommodations their employees may need to continue working and to implement them if reasonable. Employers must both engage in an interactive discussion to evaluate potential accommodations and implement any that may exist unless they prove that doing so would pose an undue hardship. Proving undue hardship is quite difficult.

But state and federal laws diverge when it comes to marijuana use. In Massachusetts, such use is legal when medically prescribed. The drug can be sold in the Commonwealth, was long ago decriminalized, and is now wholly legal for personal use. At the federal level, none of this is true. Despite broad agreement among states that marijuana has valid medical uses that should be permitted under proper supervision, U.S. law continues to provide otherwise. It was on this basis that the employer in Barbuto v. Advantage Sales and Marketing, LLC believed it could summarily terminate its employee for a positive marijuana test. [Read more…]

Supreme Judicial Court Rules that Employees get Interest on Unpaid Wages but not Statutory Penalties

The Supreme Judicial Court this week issued its latest interpretation of the Massachusetts Wage Act, Mass. Gen. L. ch. 150, §§148-150. It ruled that prejudgment interest on unpaid wages and other benefits awarded to employees should be added to judgments at the statutory rate of 12 percent. Importantly, however, the SJC decided that no interest can be awarded on the mandatory triple damage penalties that apply under the Wage Act.

The case is significant both as to its substance and the SJC’s break with a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court regarding prejudgment interest on wages. On substance, the SJC’s ruling will likely result in substantially reduced judgments against employers in some cases. As to federal precedent, the Supreme Court decided in 1945 that employees cannot receive interest on wage judgments under the Fair Labor Standards Act (a federal law dealing with wage payments to employees) because its liquidated damages provision superseded it. In rejecting this logic, the SJC pointed to laws in Massachusetts that require interest at 12 percent annually on damages awards. It concluded that harmonizing the Wage Act with these laws requires a reasonable balance such that interest must be awarded on actual damages awarded but not on triple damage sums. [Read more…]