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6th Cir.: Applying “Primary Benefit” Test, Students in Work-Study Program Were Not Employees Under FLSA

Solis v. Laurelbrook Sanitarium and School, Inc.

This case was before the Sixth Circuit on the Secretary of Labor’s appeal of the decision below, holding that the student-workers at Defendant’s sanitarium were not “employees” under the FLSA, and thus, were not entitled to the child labor protections afforded by the FLSA.  Of interest here, the Sixth Circuit clarified the test to be used under circumstances where students perform work as part of a work-study program, in which they are not compensated for such work monetarily.  After surveying the applicable case law, the DOL’s regulations and its interpretations of same, the court held that the applicable test was the “primary benefit” test.  In other words, the issue of whether such student-workers are covered by the FLSA or not turns on whether the “employer” or they themselves derive the “primary benefit” of the work performed.  Here, reviewing the specific facts of the case, the Sixth Circuit held that the trial court had properly concluded that the student-workers were non-employees, properly excluded from the coverage of the FLSA.

Describing the general factual background, the court explained:

“In conformity with its beliefs, Laurelbrook operates a boarding school for students in grades nine through twelve, an elementary school for children of staff members, and a 50–bed intermediate-care nursing home that assists in the students’ practical training (the Sanitarium). The school has been approved and accredited by the Tennessee Department of Education since the 1970s. The State of Tennessee accredits certain private schools through independent authorized accrediting agencies. The E.A. Sutherland Education Association (EASEA) is one such agency, whose purpose is to consider and adjudicate requests for accreditation from self-supporting (as opposed to denominational) schools, like Laurelbrook, which are operated by members of the Seventh–Day Adventist Church. Laurelbrook is currently accredited through EASEA.”

After surveying the applicable law and deeming the “primary benefit” test to be the proper test for determining whether the student-workers were employees, the court reasoned the student-workers here were not “employees” under the FLSA:

“In applying the primary benefit test, the district court recognized that students’ activities at Laurelbrook contribute to Laurelbrook’s maintenance, thereby benefitting Laurelbrook’s operations. Laurelbrook receives payment for services it provides to patients at the Sanitarium; some of these services are performed by students at no cost to Laurelbrook.  Hours worked by students in the Sanitarium also contribute to the Sanitarium’s satisfaction of its licensing requirements. Laurelbrook sells flowers and produce grown at Laurelbrook with student help. The proceeds from these sales go directly to Laurelbrook’s operations. As part of a course on collision repair, students assist in repairing cars for the public. Beneficiaries of these services pay Laurelbrook directly and the money is recycled back into school programs. Laurelbrook also earns revenue from the sale of wood pallets the students help build.

The value of these benefits to Laurelbrook, however, is offset in various ways. The district court found that Laurelbrook students do not displace compensated workers, and instructors must spend extra time supervising the students at the expense of performing productive work. Specifically, the court found that Laurelbrook is sufficiently staffed such that if the students did not perform work at the Sanitarium, the staff members could continue to provide the same services there without interruption. And while not specifically mentioned by the district court in its findings, there was evidence at trial that the same was also true of the work performed by students outside the Sanitarium. There was also testimony that, were it not for the instructors’ supervisory responsibilities, instructors would be able to complete more productive tasks in less time. Moreover, as the district court found, Laurelbrook is not in competition with other institutions for labor, so Laurelbrook does not enjoy an unfair advantage over other institutions by reason of work performed by its students…

Students do not receive wages for duties they perform. They are not entitled to a job with Laurelbrook upon graduation, and are expected to move on after graduation.”

On the other side of the ledger are the tangible and intangible benefits that accrue to the students. The district court found that Laurelbrook provides it students with significant tangible benefits. Students are provided with hands-on training comparable to training provided in public school vocational courses, allowing them to be competitive in various vocations upon graduation. Students learn to operate tools normally used in the trades they are learning, while being supervised by instructors. Students engage in courses of study that have been considered and approved of by the state accrediting agency. In short, the educational aspect of the instruction at Laurelbrook is sound, in contrast to the training program at issue in Baptist Hospital, where the supervision was inadequate, the exposure to various aspects of the trade limited, and the overall value to the students nil. None of these educational shortcomings is present here. Indeed, the Tennessee Department of Education, through EASEA, has determined that Laurelbrook’s vocational program provides benefits to the students sufficient to warrant accreditation.

Significant, too, are the intangible benefits students receive at Laurelbrook. As the district court found, receiving a well-rounded education—one that includes hands-on, practical training—is a tenet of the Seventh–Day Adventist Church. Laurelbrook provides students with the opportunity to obtain such an education in an environment consistent with their beliefs. The district court found that the vocational training portion of the education teaches students about responsibility and the dignity of manual labor. Thought not mentioned in the district court’s opinion, there is ample evidentiary support for these findings. Parents testified to the benefits their children received from the program, stating that the students learn the importance of working hard and seeing a task through to completion. Some parents testified that their children have become more responsible and have taken on leadership roles since participating in Laurelbrook’s program. Service in the Sanitarium engenders sensitivity and respect for the elderly and infirm. Laurelbrook alumni testified that the leadership skills and work ethic developed at Laurelbrook have proved highly valuable in their future endeavors. Employers also testified that Laurelbrook alumni have a strong work ethic, leadership skills, and other practical skills that graduates of other vocational programs lack.

The Secretary discounts the value of these intangible benefits, but we agree with the district court that they are of significant value. Courts that have addressed the value of such benefits have likewise concluded that they are significant enough to tip the scale of primary benefit in the students’ favor even where the school receives tangible benefits from the students’ activities. See, e.g., Blair, 420 F.3d at 829; Woods, 400 F.Supp.2d at 1166; Bobilin, 403 F.Supp. at 1108. The overall value of broad educational benefits should not be discounted simply because they are intangible.

After considering all of the evidence, the district court found that there is benefit to Laurelbrook’s operations from the students’ activities, but the primary benefit of the program runs to the students. We find no error in the district court’s application of the primary benefit test.”

Click Solis v. Laurelbrook Sanitarium & School to read the entire opinion.

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