U.S businesses will face sharply increased wage costs if Senate Democrats succeed in their plan to pass as soon as this week the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (the “Act”) passed by the House of Representatives on Friday, February 24, 2021.
One of many provisions impacting employers and their employee benefit plans in the Act that Congressional Democrats are pushing through as a COVID-19 relief package, Section 2101 of the Act amends the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (“FLSA”) to increase immediately upon enactment the federal minimum wage employers covered by the FLSA must pay to most non-exempt employees (“regular rate”) by $2.25 per hour from the current rate of $7.25 to $9.50 per hour, then provides for additional annual increases the gradual increase of the federal minimum wage that will raise the regular rate to $15.00 per hour over the next four years. Beginning in 2026, the Act also provides for annual increases in the regular rate based on the median hourly wage of all employees as determined by the Bureau of Labor Statistics rounded up to the nearest multiple of $0.05. This means the regular minimum wage employers must pay most hourly employees would more than double by 2025 and continue to increase thereafter.
In addition, the Act also phases out current rules allowing employers to pay tipped employees, new employees under age 20 and handicapped employees less than the regular minimum wage over the next five years and raises the minimum wage the FLSA allows employers to pay those employees gradually over the intervening period, with the initial increases slated to take effect upon enactment.
As Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has announced plans to bring the Act before the Senate for a vote as early as this week and President Biden committed to promptly sign the Act that is the centerpiece of the Democrats latest COVID-19 relief package, businesses are likely to feel the impact of the increased minimum wage and other mandates within days if not by month’s end.
These amendments will directly and immediately increase labor costs for non-exempt workers as well as employee benefit and fringe benefit costs and obligations tied to compensation or based on FLSA classifications. Other Biden-Harris Administration policies expanding the scope of the FLSA and other federal laws through revisions and enforcement of rules for characterizing workers as employees rather than independent contractors and enforcing expansive joint employer liability rules as well as other announced or expected Biden-Harris Administration proworker regulatory and enforcement changes almost certainly will expand the reach and implications of these changes. The Biden-Harris Administration’s January 20, 2021 Memorandum on Regulatory Freeze Pending Review suspended the implementation of the Trump Administration led Labor Department’s Final Rule: Independent Contractor Status under the Fair Labor Standards Act slated to take effect on March 8, 2021, which sought to restore and clarify historical more employer friendly policies for distinguishing employee versus independent contractor relationships for purposes of the FLSA, the WHD’s withdrawal of previously issued Trump Administration era opinions that applied that Administration’s more expansive view of independent contractor status, and WHD’s issuance of new opinions articulating and apply applying significantly narrower definitions of independent contractor and broader definitions of employees.
Based on the agenda announced by the Biden-Harris Administration, businesses also should expect the Biden-Harris Administration and private plaintiffs to use these more employee friendly interpretation and enforcement policies to attack employer characterizations of workers as contractors to justify nonpayment of minimum wage and overtime to those workers. Along with being forced to pay unpaid wages and overtime with interest, businesses unsuccessful in defending their worker classification characterizations can expect to face liquidated damage awards to private litigants equal to two times the amount of the back pay liability or in the case of WHD enforcement for repeated or willful violations, civil monetary penalties.
In assessing and managing these risks, businesses should evaluate their potential joint employer exposure to liability for unpaid minimum wage and overtime violations by other businesses providing labor or other services as the Biden-Harris Administration also is expected to seek to apply the much more expansive interpretation of joint employment applied during the Obama Administration abandoned during the Trump Administration.
These misclassification mistakes can be particularly costly. FLSA liabilities arising from misclassification of workers as independent contractors carry significant risk both because businesses often fail to pay required minimum wages or overtime as well as don’t keep required time records. The Biden-Harris Administration has made clear that it plans to move quickly to reimplement the regulatory and enforcement practices used during the Obama Administration to aggressively challenge employers’ characterization of workers as exempt from the FLSA’s minimum wage and overtime rules as independent contractors.
Considering these developments, all U.S. businesses and business leaders are well-advised both to begin preparing to comply with anticipated increases in federal minimum wage rates, as well as well as assess and take appropriate steps to mitigate their exposure to anticipated aggressive efforts to reclassify service providers considered to perform work as independent contractors, as contractors or employees of subcontractors or other businesses or both.
The FLSA reforms are only one of a number of provisions of the Act impacting employers and their employee benefit plans. For more a more comprehensive discussion of the FLSA amendments included in the Act, see here.
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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 30+ years working as an on demand, special project, consulting, general counsel or other basis with domestic and international business, charitable, community and government organizations of all types, sizes and industries and their leaders on labor and employment and other workforce compliance, performance management, internal controls and governance, compensation and benefits, regulatory compliance, investigations and audits, change management and restructuring, disaster preparedness and response and other operational, risk management and tactical concerns.
Most widely recognized for her work with workforce, health care, life sciences, insurance and data and technology organizations, she also has worked extensively with health plan and insurance, employee benefits, financial, transportation, manufacturing, energy, real estate, accounting and other services, public and private academic and other education, hospitality, charitable, civic and other business, government and community organizations. and their leaders.
Ms. Stamer has extensive experience advising, representing, defending and training domestic and international public and private business, charitable, community and governmental organizations and their leaders, employee benefit plans, their fiduciaries and service providers, insurers, and others has published and spoken extensively on these concerns. As part of these involvements, she has worked, published and spoken extensively on these and other federal and state wage and hour and other compensation, discrimination, performance management, and other related human resources, employee benefits and other workforce and services; insurance; workers’ compensation and occupational disease; business reengineering, disaster and distress; and many other risk management, compliance, public policy and performance concerns.
A former lead advisor to the Government of Bolivia on its pension project, Ms. Stamer also has worked internationally and domestically as an advisor to business, community and government leaders on these and other legislative, regulatory and other legislative and regulatory design, drafting, interpretation and enforcement, as well as regularly advises and represents organizations on the design, administration and defense of workforce, employee benefit and compensation, safety, discipline, reengineering, regulatory and operational compliance and other management practices and actions.
Ms. Stamer also serves in leadership of a broad range of professional and civic organizations and provides insights and thought leadership through her extensive publications, public speaking and volunteer service with a diverse range of organizations including as Chair of the American Bar Association (“ABA”) Intellectual Property Section Law Practice Management Committee, Vice Chair of the International Section Life Sciences and Health Committee, Past ABA RPTE Employee Benefits & Other Compensation Group Chair and Council Representative and current Welfare Benefit Committee Co-Chair, Past Chair of the ABA Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group, past Region IV Chair and national Society of Human Resources Management Consultant Forum Board Member, past Texas Association of Business BACPAC Chair, Regional Chair and Dallas Chapter Chair, former Vice President and Executive Director of the North Texas Health Care Compliance Professionals Association, past Board President of Richardson Development Center (now Warren Center) for Children Early Childhood Intervention Agency, past North Texas United Way Long Range Planning Committee Member, past Board Member and Compliance Chair of the National Kidney Foundation of North Texas, a Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Counsel, the American Bar Foundation and the Texas Bar Foundation and many others.
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