Texas Landscaper’s $106,000 In Minimum Wage & Overtime Settlement Reminds Employers To Prepare For FLSA Enforcement

October 17, 2012

Midland, Texas-based landscaper, Turf Specialties Inc. (TSI) will pay $106,818 in back wages to 70 current and former landscape workers to settle charges made by the U.S. Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division (DOL) that TSI payment of workers a fixed, bi-weekly salary violated the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) minimum and overtime provisions. The settlement is a reminder to landscape and other U.S. employers of the importance of insuring that their company designs and administers worker classification, salary and other wage and compensation practices and data to defend against wage and other charges and claims.

FLSA & Other Minimum Wage & Overtime Violations Risky

The FLSA requires that properly classify covered non-exempt workers and pay the workers at least the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour for all regular hours worked, plus time and one-half their regular rates, including commissions, bonuses and incentive pay, for hours worked beyond 40 per week.  Employers treating workers performing serves as exempt from the FLSA minimum wage, overtime and other rules generally bear the burden of proving that the worker either is not properly classified as a common law employee or qualifies as exempt from the FLSA requirements under one of the applicable FLSA exemptions.  For non-exempt employees, the applicable employer also generally is responsible for collecting and maintaining records of hours worked and its proper payment of minimum wage and overtime in accordance with the FLSA requirements.  In addition to these federal rules, employers generally also are subject to various state minimum wage and overtime requirements.  Beyond the risk of enforcement by the DOL and state labor officials, employers violating these rules also generally run the risk of lawsuits brought by employees or groups of employees, seeking actual damages, attorneys fees and costs and punitive or other awards.

TSI Action Illustrates Big Risks of Misclassification Or Other FLSA Violations

The TSI settlement announced today highlights some of the risks that employers run when they get caught playing fast and loose with the FLSA or other wage and hour laws.

According to today’s announcement, a DOL investigation of TSI uncovered a series of FLSA wage and hour DOL investigators found that TSI paid the landscape employees a fixed, biweekly salary that in many workweeks amounted to less than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour and did not compensate the employees at time and one-half their regular rates of pay for hours worked in excess of 40 hours in a particular workweek.  DOL also says that TSI committed other minimum wage and overtime violations by improperly deducting from employees’ paychecks amounts for uniforms, broken tools and equipment damage. Investigators also found that several employees working as “crew leaders” were improperly classified as exempt from the FLSA’s overtime provision and consequently denied proper overtime compensation.

TSI Settlement Highlights Rising Risks

One of a growing number of costly wage and hour law settlements, the TSI settlement is a relatively small reminder of how costly a mistake employers can make by engaging in overly aggressive worker classification or pay practices.  Through the settlement, TSI avoided potentially much greater fines by agreeing to pay all back wages of more than $106,000 due to the affected workers and committing to future compliance with the FLSA.  It comes on the same day as another employer might not get off that lucky.  Along with the TSI announcement, DOL also announced that it sued to recover $285,000 in back wages for 171 Ohio restaurant workers working under restaurants three restaurants doing business as El Rancho Grande.Highlighting the growing exposure employers generally face from the heightened Labor Department emphasis on overtime and other wage and hour law enforcement, .the settlement also demonstrates the significant risks that employers face from mischaracterizing or failing to properly pay for on-call, standby or other similar times required of non-exempt employees.  Employers and others providing workforce staffing should check and tighten existing worker classification, timekeeping and classification, record keeping and other practices and take other steps to strengthen the defensibility of their practices.  As the DOL and private plaintiffs become increasingly aggressive about enforcing these rules, settlements of hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars are increasingly common.  See, e.g. Record $2.3 Million+ H-2A Backpay Order Plus Civil Money Penalty Reminds Businesses Employing Foreign Workers To Manage Compliance; Employer Charged With Misclassifying & Underpaying Workers To Pay $754,578 FLSA Back pay Settlement; March 21 New Deadline To Comment On Proposal To Extend Minimum Wage, Overtime Rules To In Home Care Workers$1 Million + FLSA Overtime Settlement Shows Employers Should Tighten On-Call, Other Wage & Hour Practices;   New IRS Voluntary IRS Settlement Program Offers New Option For Resolving Payroll Tax Risks Of Misclassification But Employers Also Must Manage Other Legal Risks; Medical Resident Stipend Ruling Shows Health Care, Other Employers Should Review Payroll Practices; Employment Tax Takes Center Stage as IRS Begins National Research Project , Executive Compensation Audits. 

Unfortunately, many employers often are overly optimistic or otherwise fail to properly understand and apply FLSA rules for characterizing on-call or other time, classifying workers as exempt versus non-exempt or making other key determinations. 

Employers wearing rose-tinted glasses when making wage and hour worker classification or compensable time determinations tend to overlook the significance of the burden of proof they can expect to bear should their classification be challenged.  Under the FLSA and applicable state wage and hour laws, employers generally bear the burden of proving that they have properly paid their employees in accordance with the FLSA. Additionally, the FLSA and most applicable state wage and hour laws typically mandate that employers maintain records of the hours worked by employees by non-exempt employees, documentation of the employer’s proper payment of its non-exempt employees in accordance with the minimum wage and overtime mandates of the FLSA, and certain other records.  Since the burden of proof of compliance generally rests upon the employer, employers should take steps to ensure their ability to demonstrate that they have properly paid non-exempt employees in accordance with applicable FLSA and state wage and hour mandates and that employees not paid in accordance with these mandates qualify as exempt from coverage under the FLSA. 

These mistakes can be very costly.  Employers that fail to properly pay employees under Federal and state wage and hour regulations face substantial risk.  In addition to liability for back pay awards, violation of wage and hour mandates carries substantial civil – and in the case of willful violations, even criminal liability exposure.  Civil awards commonly include back pay, punitive damages and attorneys’ fees. 

The potential that noncompliant employers will incur these liabilities has risen significantly in recent years.  Under the Obama Administration, Labor Department officials have made it a priority to enforce overtime, record keeping, worker classification and other wage and hour law requirements. While all employers face heightened prosecution risks, federal officials specifically are targeting government contractors, health care, technology and certain other industry employers for special scrutiny.  Meanwhile, private enforcement of these requirements by also has soared after the highly publicized implementation of updated FLSA regulations on the classification of workers during the last Bush Administration. See Minimum Wage, Overtime Risks Highlighted By Labor Department Strike Force Targeting Residential Care & Group Homes; Review & Strengthen Defensibility of Existing Worker Classification Practices In Light of Rising Congressional & Regulatory Scrutiny; 250 New Investigators, Renewed DOL Enforcement Emphasis Signal Rising Wage & Hour Risks For EmployersQuest Diagnostics, Inc. To Pay $688,000 In Overtime Backpay.

Employers Should Strengthen Worker Classification & Pay Practices For Defensibility

As a result, most employers should check and document the defensibility of their existing practices for classifying and compensating workers under existing Federal and state wage and hour laws and take proper steps to minimize their potential liability under applicable wages and hour laws.  To minimize exposure under the FLSA, employers should review and document the defensibility of their existing practices for classifying and compensating workers under existing Federal and state wage and hour laws and tighten processes as needed to minimize their potential liability under applicable wages and hour laws.  Steps advisable as part of this process include, but are not necessarily limited to:

  • Audit of each that the employer treats as either contract labor, salaried or otherwise exempt to assess its continued sustainability and to develop documentation justifying that characterization;
  • Audit characterization of workers obtained from staffing, employee leasing, independent contractor and other arrangements and implement contractual and other oversight arrangements to minimize risks that these relationships could create if workers are recharacterized as employed by the employer receiving these services;
  • Review situations where the employer pays a worker salary, flat fees for weeks of work, on-call, standby, per job, per diem or other ways other than on an hourly basisto confirm that all compensable time is properly identified, tracked, documented, compensated and reported;
  • Review of existing practices for tracking compensable hours and paying non-exempt employees for compliance with applicable regulations and to identify opportunities to minimize costs and liabilities arising out of the regulatory mandates;
  • If the audit raises questions about the appropriateness of the classification of an employee as exempt, consult with qualified, experienced legal counsel about options and the advisability of  corrective action;
  • Review of existing documentation and recordkeeping practices for hourly, salaried, and other employees and contractors to build a safety net to help mitigate exposures in the event of reclassification or other challenges;
  • Explore available options and alternatives for calculating required wage payments to non-exempt employees;
  • Reengineer work rules and other practices to minimize costs and liabilities as appropriate in light of the regulations;
  • Re-evaluate these arrangements periodically, as well as in the event of a challenge by a similar worker; and
  • Stay vigilent.

Because of the potentially significant liability exposure, employers generally will want to consult with qualified legal counsel before beginning an assessment and to conduct the assessment within the scope of attorney-client privilege to minimize risks that might arise out of communications made in the course of conducting this sensitive investigation.  Because conversations among leadership, with vendors, or with accounting or other consulting service providers about worker classification, wage and other compensation arrangements typically do not enjoy the protection of attorney-client privilege, employers also should exercise caution about securing the assistance of these service providers to conduct risk audits, or when discussing concerns or possible remedies with these parties unless and until proper arrangements are made to include those discussions within the scope of attorney-client privilege or making other suitable arrangements to manage the risks of these disclosures. 

For Help With Investigations, Policy Updates Or Other Needs

If you need help in conducting a risk assessment of or responding to an IRS, Labor Department or other agency or private plaintiff legal challenges to your organization’s existing workforce classification, pay or other labor and employment, employee benefit or compensation practices, please contact the author of this update, attorney Cynthia Marcotte Stamer here or at (469) 767-8872 .

Board Certified in Labor & Employment Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, management attorney and consultant Ms. Stamer is nationally and internationally recognized for more than 23 years of work helping employers; employee benefit plans and their sponsors, administrators, fiduciaries; employee leasing, recruiting, staffing and other professional employment organizations; and others design, administer and defend innovative workforce, compensation, employee benefit  and management policies and practices. A member of the Editorial Advisory Board of HR.com, the immediate past Chair of the American Bar Association (ABA) RPTE Employee Benefits & Other Compensation Committee, a Council Representative on the ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits, Government Affairs Committee Legislative Chair for the Dallas Human Resources Management Association, past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group, Ms. Stamer frequently has worked, extensively on these and other workforce and performance related matters.   She also is recognized for her publications, industry leadership, workshops and presentations on these and other human resources concerns and regularly speaks and conducts training on these matters.Her insights on these and other matters appear in the Bureau of National Affairs, Spencer Publications, the Wall Street Journal, the Dallas Business Journal, the Houston Business Journal, and many other national and local publications. For additional information about Ms. Stamer and her experience or to access other publications by Ms. Stamer see here or contact Ms. Stamer directly.

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