A federal court order against a Brewster home care provider shows some key things an employer should not do when facing a Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) or other Labor Department investigation. With Labor Department wage and hour and other employment and labor law enforcement soaring under the Biden Administration’s pro-employee agenda, all employers should learn from the schooling this and other noncompliant employers are receiving from the Labor Department and courts.
Sunrise Home Health Care, Inc. & Owner Injunction For FLSA Investigation interference & Retaliation
The Labor Department obtained a temporary restraining order in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York on March 1, 2023 ordering Sunrise Home Care Inc. and owner Elsa Silva to stop retaliating against employees in an effort to obstruct the wage and Hour Division’s FLSA investigation.
According to the Labor Department complaint, when the Wage and Hour Division began an investigation to evaluate the employers’ compliance with the FLSA in January 2023, Silva has harassed and intimidated employees repeatedly by
- Asking workers about their communications with investigators;
- instructing workers to provide false information;
- Telling employees she would have to close the business and they would lose their jobs if the investigation determined she had to pay overtime premiums; and
- Pressuring employees to agree to return to the employers any monies owed to employees as a result of the investigation.
The court order secured by the Labor Department forbids Silva and Sunrise Home Care Inc. from doing the following:
- Violating the FLSA’s anti-retaliation provisions.
- Threatening employees with termination or other retaliatory actions or taking any other actions to prevent them from participating in the Department’s investigation or in any other FLSA-protected activity.
- Obstructing and interfering, in any way, with the investigation.
- Telling workers not to cooperate with investigators or to provide incomplete or false information to them.
- Questioning employees about their cooperation or communications with investigators.
- Advising current and former employees that they must “kickback” or return any back wages the department may determine they are owed.
- Communicating with any employee regarding the investigation without first informing the employee that they may communicate with investigators voluntarily and not be discriminated against for doing so.
The court order secured by the Labor Department also orders Silva and Sunrise Home Care Inc. to:
- Permit division representatives to read aloud – in English, Spanish, Portuguese and any other language understood by most employees – a statement describing employees’ FLSA rights during their paid working hours and in the presence of the defendants.
- Mail a written statement of the same to current and former employees.
- Provide a written notice to the Wage and Hour Division at least seven days before terminating an employee for any reason.
The injunctive relief issued by the Court seeks to allows the Labor Department investigation to continue without further employer obstruction. Aside from any contempt sanctions Sunrise and Silva could incur for violating the court’s order, the alleged threats and retaliation also could serve as a basis for the assessment of additional liability as a sanction for the employee’s prohibited retaliation beyond any backpay and penalty awards the Labor Department finds the employer owes for failing to pay wages or keep records.
FLSA Liability Risks High; Learn From Other Employer’s Mistakes
Other employees and their management should learn from the schooling the court ordered against Sunrise and Silva and avoid engaging in the actions prohibited by the court order when facing their own FLSA or other Labor Department investigation.
The Labor Department views audit, investigation and enforcement of the FLSA compliance and violations a key priority and employers risk significant liability for violations from Wage and Hour Division or private enforcement.
Enforcement by the Labor Department and private litigants of minimum wage, overtime, child labor, human trafficking and other laws is increasingly common. the Labor Department Wage and Hour Division concludes approximately 21,000 Fair Labor Standards Act cases, impacting over 200,000 workers each year. Over the last five years, Wage and Hour has collected more than $1 billion in back wages for workers in America. But the Department of Labor recognizes that back wages alone provide insufficient compensation to employees for lost wages. Although actual enforcement dipped slightly over the past two years due to the disruption in the Wage and Hour Division’s staffing and operation during the COVID-19 health care emergency, its announcement of a stream of FLSA enforcement actions reflects it is resuming its zealous enforcement. See WHD FLSA and Other Statistics. Therefore, liquidated damages are intended to compensate workers for damages they may have incurred as the result of not having been paid timely for all the wages they legally earned.
Employers found in violation of these rules enforcement actions face actual damages, interest, civil monetary penalties, enforcement costs, and in the case of willful violations, even potential criminal sanctions. While the Labor Department during the Trump Presidency suspended its pursuit of collection of liquidated damages authorized under the FLSA Generous recoveries also make private enforcement very attractive to employees and plaintiffs’ counsel, this leniency ended after President Biden took office. Since April 9, 2021, Labor Department wage and hour law enforcement policy includes pursuing the implementation and collection of liquidated damages in addition to back pay and interest due for unpaid wages from employers found in violation of the FLSA and other wage and hour laws. Private litigants can recover actual damages plus double damages, interest, attorneys’ fees and other costs of enforcement. The availability of these extraordinary damages and recoveries makes these highly popular cases to many plaintiffs’ attorneys.
As demonstrated by the Exxon injunction, employers facing wage and hour investigations, audits or even employee inquiries or underpayment assertions other should keep in mind that actions by the employer that could be viewed as interference with an investigation by the Labor Department as well as improperly handled employee questions or statements of concern about potential FLSA and other related requirements can create retaliation or whistleblower risks. Accordingly, employers should use care to investigate and respond carefully to these concerns, addressing workers during the conduct of a Labor Department audit, investigation or enforcement action and in handling subsequent discipline or other employment decisions involving workers raising them.
Along with FLSA claims, these violations also can trigger state wage an hour, payday act and other liabilities.
Many businesses experience difficulties defending wage and hour and other FLSA claims due to lax timekeeping and recordkeeping practices, misclassification of workers as contract labor or exempt, failure to include nondiscretionary bonus or other required compensation or hours of work when calculating overtime liability and other common mistakes.
Businesses also should use care to manage their potential exposure to joint employer or other liability for unpaid wages, overtime or other FLSA violations committed by subcontractors, contract labor companies, staffing or other businesses providing workers. Businesses can face imputed liability for violations committed by these other organizations when the facts and circumstances show the business exercises sufficient control over the details of the details of the worker’s work to qualify as a common law employer, whether the relationship between the business and the provider of worker qualifies as a “joint employment” relationship under the rules applicable to FLSA and National Labor Relations Act determinations for joint employment or certain other situations. he Wage and Hour Division also has propose adoption of a regulation to govern classification of workers as employees versus independent contractors for purposes of the FLSA, which if adopted, would heighten the likelihood that many workers considered contractors by businesses could be reclassified by the Labor Department as employees for FLSA and other wage and hour law purposes. The comment period for that regulation closed in December, 2022. Government contractors and subcontractors also may bear responsibility for contracting with subcontractors and taking other steps to ensure that these subcontracting entities comply with government contract wage requirements and the FLSA.
Misunderstandings about when workers are classified as employees versus contractors, exempt versus non-exempt, and regarding the appropriate tracking, counting, and reporting of hours work increasingly play a major role in aiding Labor Department or plaintiff’s successful enforcement and increase employer liability. Many employers failure to appreciate the significance of statutory presumptions of the existence of an employment relationship and of non-exempt status on the burden of proof the employer must meet to defend its treatment of a worker as a nonemployee or exempt employee. Many employers also fail to recognize the significance of special FLSA rules for characterization of workers as employees, the risk of reclassification of workers the employer considers as contractors or through staffing, day labor or other labor subcontractors as their employees or joint employees. Equally common are misconceptions about the narrowness of the rules for treating employees as exempt and eligible for payment on a salary rather than hourly basis. These mistakes also create a heightened risk that the employer will failed to track necessary Information to defend against employee or Labor Department hours of work claims, overtime or minimum wage claim as well as fuel additional liability for failing to comply with FLSA rules for tracking reporting of hours work. These misperceptions also often lead misinformed employers to take actions that provide a basis for retaliation claims. The Labor Department and private litigant leverage these mistakes to achieve their recoveries.
Because these audits often uncover violations or lead to sensitive conversations about the classification and payment of workers under the FLSA and other laws, employers and their leaders generally should arrange for this analysis to be conducted within the scope of attorney client privilege under the direction of a lawyer experienced in FLSA and other employment law compliance.
We hope this update is helpful. For more information about the these or other health or other legal, management or public policy developments, please contact the author Cynthia Marcotte Stamer via e-mail or via telephone at (214) 452 -8297.
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About the Author
Recognized by her peers as a Martindale-Hubble “AV-Preeminent” (Top 1%) and “Top Rated Lawyer” with special recognition LexisNexis® Martindale-Hubbell® as “LEGAL LEADER™ Texas Top Rated Lawyer” in Health Care Law and Labor and Employment Law; as among the “Best Lawyers In Dallas” for her work in the fields of “Labor & Employment,” “Tax: ERISA & Employee Benefits,” “Health Care” and “Business and Commercial Law” by D Magazine, Cynthia Marcotte Stamer is a practicing attorney board certified in labor and employment law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization and management consultant, author, public policy advocate and lecturer widely known for 35+ years of workforce and other management work, public policy leadership and advocacy, coaching, teachings, scholarship and thought leadership.
A Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Counsel, Vice Chair of the American Bar Association (“ABA”) International Section Life Sciences and Health Committee, Past Chair of the ABA Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group, Scribe for the ABA JCEB Annual Agency Meeting with HHS-OCR, past chair of the ABA RPTE Employee Benefits & Other Compensation Group and current co-Chair of its Welfare Benefit Committee, Ms. Stamer’s work throughout her 35 year career has focused heavily on working with employer and other staffing and workforce organizations, health care and managed care, health and other employee benefit plan, insurance and financial services and other public and private organizations and their technology, data, and other service providers and advisors domestically and internationally with legal and operational compliance and risk management, performance and workforce management, regulatory and public policy and other legal and operational concerns. As an ongoing component of this work, she regularly advises, represents and defends businesses on FLSA, CAS, SCA, Davis-Bacon, Equal Pay Act and other wage and hour, compensation and benefit and other Human Resources, Guideline Program and other compliance, risk management and other internal and external controls in a wide range of areas and has published and spoken extensively on these concerns.
Ms. Stamer also is widely recognized for her decades of pragmatic, leading edge work, scholarship and thought leadership on workforce, compensation, and other operations, risk management, compliance and regulatory and public affairs concerns.
For more information about Ms. Stamer or her health industry and other experience and involvements, see www.cynthiastamer.com or contact Ms. Stamer via telephone at (214) 452-8297 or via e-mail here.
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