Tag Archives: Regular Rate

N.D.Cal.: “Annual Leave” Buy-Back, Consisting of Both Vacation and Sick Leave, Need Not Be Included in Regular Rate (or OT) Calculations

Balisteri v. Menlo Park Fire Protection Dist.

This case was before the court on the parties’ cross-motions for summary judgment. Plaintiffs asserted 2 distinct claims: one for time spent donning and doffing their firefighter uniforms for temporary assignment, and one based on their assertion that defendant erred in failing to include payments made for buy-back of “Annual Leave” in their regular rates (and corresponding overtime rates). As discussed here, the court granted the defendant’s motion and held that the “Annual Leave” buy-back need not be included in the calculation of plaintiffs’ regular rate, while denying plaintiffs’ motion. In so doing the court distinguished the case from others reaching the opposite conclusion regarding a similar issue.

The court framed the issue as follows:

Plaintiffs’ second claim alleges that Defendant violated the FLSA by failing to include Annual Leave buy-backs for unused “sick leave” in their regular rate of pay which, in turn, negatively affected their overtime pay. The FLSA requires employers to pay their employees overtime based on one and a half times the employee’s “regular rate” for hours worked in excess of 40 hours a week. 29 U.S.C. § 207(a)(2)(c). The “regular rate” of pay “at which an employee is employed shall be deemed to include all remuneration for employment paid to, or on behalf of, the employee,” subject to certain enumerated exceptions. Id. § 207(e). One exception is for payments made for periods when no work is performed. Id. § 207(e)(2). The exception states that the regular rate should not include:

Payments for occasional periods when no work is performed due to vacation, holiday, illnesses, failure of the employer to provide sufficient work, or other similar cause …; and other similar payments to an employee which are not made as compensation for his hours of employment.

Id. (emphasis added). The regulations implementing this exclusion reiterate that when an employee is not at work due to vacation or illness but nonetheless is paid, said payment need not be used in calculating the employee’s regulate or overtime rate of pay. 29 C.F.R. § 778.218(a). The exclusion also applies when an employee foregoes a vacation but still receives vacation pay in addition to his or her customary pay for all hours worked. Id. § 779.218(a); see Chavez v. City of Albuquerque, 630 F.3d 1300, 1307–309 (10th Cir.2011) (citing, inter alia, 29 C.F.R § 779.218(a) and holding that “vacation buy back-payments are not part of the regular rate.”).

Discussing the relevant law, the court explained:

The Ninth Circuit has not yet addressed the issue of whether buy-back compensation for unused sick leave must be included in an employee’s regular rate for purposes of the FLSA, and other circuits are split on the issue. In Featsent v. City of Youngstown, 70 F.3d 900 (6th Cir.1995), the Sixth Circuit held that a cash-out for unused sick leave is not pay for hours worked, and need not be included in the employee’s regular rate. Id. at 905. The court reasoned that “awards for nonuse of sick leave are similar to payments made when no work is performed due to illness, which may be excluded from the regular rate” under 29 U.S.C. § 207(e)(2). Id. In contrast, the Eighth Circuit in Acton v. Columbia, 436 F.3d 969 (8th Cir.2006) reached the opposite conclusion. In its analysis, the Acton court relied on 29 U.S.C. § 207(e), which requires money paid for general or specific work-related duties to be included in the regular rate of pay. Id. at 976–77. Noting that “the primary effect of the buy-back program is to encourage firefighters to come to work regularly over a significant period of their employment tenure,” the court concluded that work attendance was a specific work-related duty and that the buy-back payments must be included as remuneration for employment. Id. at 977.

Following Action, as well as a Department of Labor interpretive bulletin, the Tenth Circuit in Chavez held that sick leave buy-backs—but not vacation buy-backs—must be included in the regular rate. 630 F.3d at 1309;
see U.S. Dept. of Labor, Wage and Hour Opinion Letter FLSA–2009–10, dated Jan. 16, 2009,
2009 WL 649021. The Chavez court explained this distinction as follows:

To be sure, both vacation and sick leave buy-back reward attendance, in some sense, because they reward an employee for not taking days off. The key difference lies in the way each type of day off operates. A sick day is usually unscheduled or unexpected, and is a burden because the employer must find last-minute coverage for the sick employee. In contrast, vacation days are usually scheduled in advance, so their use does not burden the employer in the way that unscheduled absences do. An employee has a duty not to abuse sick days, whereas there is no corresponding duty not to use vacation days. Buying back sick days rewards an employee for consistent and as-scheduled attendance, which are the aspects of good attendance that provide additional value to an employer. Thus, sick leave buy-backs are compensation for additional service or value received by the employer, and are analogous to attendance bonuses. In contrast, payments for non-use of vacation days are analogous to holiday work premiums or bonuses for working particular undesirable days.

Id. at 1309–1310.

Rejecting plaintiffs’ assertion that the payments at issue must be included in the regular rate calculations and distinguishing out-of-circuit case law, the court reasoned:

Plaintiffs urge the Court to follow Acton and Chavez and to find that the District’s buy-backs under its Annual Leave program should have been included in Plaintiff’s regular rate. The Court disagrees. Both of those cases involved dedicated buy-back programs specifically for sick time. This case is different. The District no longer separates sick leave from vacation time. Rather, the District now maintains an Annual Leave program which makes no distinction between vacation or sick time when time is withdrawn from the Annual Leave Bank. As discussed, under the terms of the governing MOU, Annual Leave accrues pursuant to separate formulas for “sick leave” and “vacation.” MOU § 10.1 & Ex. B. However, once sick leave and vacation time have accrued, they are deposited into an Annual Leave Bank. Once in the Annual Leave Bank, the employee’s accrued time is simply treated as Annual Leave, which can be used for both unscheduled and scheduled absences. In other words, an employee may use his or her Annual Leave without regard to the reason the employee is taking time off. Thus, unlike the sick leave buy-back program in Chavez, the District’s buy-back of annual leave does not “reward[ ] an employee for consistent and as-scheduled attendance” and is not “analogous to attendance bonuses.” 630 F.3d at 1309–310.

The court rejected plaintiffs argument regarding the significance of the fact that under the MOU, leave time accrues separately on either the vacation or sick leave schedule, and that when time is debited from the Annual Leave Bank, it is classified as either “annual level scheduled” or “annual leave unscheduled.” The court also questioned the significance of the fact that the hours accrued at the vacation rate are segregated into an Annual Leave Restricted Bank until they can be scheduled and used. Because no deductions could be made from the Annual Leave Restricted Bank nor does the District buy-back any leave in that bank. Id. Instead, only at the end of the calendar year in which the leave accrued are those hours are rolled in the Annual Leave Bank where they can be used for any purpose. Finally, the court dismissed plaintiffs argument that, as a practical matter, the “vast majority” of them use their Annual Leave for scheduled absences, meaning that any leftover hours cashed-out are, in effect, for sick leave, due to the lack of evidence in support of this proposition.

Click Balisteri v. Menlo Park Fire Protection Dist. to read the Order Granting Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment, and Denying Plaintiffs’ Motion for Summary Judgment.

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E.D.N.Y.: Where 20% Gratuity Constituted Recommended Tip, Not Mandatory Service Charge, It Was Properly Excluded From Calculation of Regular Rate and Overtime

Ellis v. Common Wealth Worldwide Chaueffuered Transp. of NY, LLC

This case was before the court on the parties’ cross-motions for summary judgment and plaintiff’s related motion to strike. As discussed here, one of the issues before the court was whether a recommended 20% gratuity constituted a tip or a mandatory service charge, as defined by the FLSA. Significantly, defendant did not include the gratuity in plaintiffs regular rate for purposes of calculating his overtime each week. If it constituted a tip, it was properly excluded from the calculation of plaintiff’s regular rate and resulting overtime rate of pay. However, if it was a mandatory service charge, defendant was required to include it in calculating plaintiff’s overtime, and its failure to do so constituted a violation of the FLSA. Based on the facts before the court, the court concluded that the gratuity was simply a recommended (not mandatory) tip amount, and thus was properly excluded from plaintiff’s regular rate of pay.

The court explained:

“Where an employer, such as Commonwealth, is not using a “tip credit” to satisfy the FLSA’s minimum wage provision, any tips the employee receives “need not be included in the regular rate” for purposes of calculating proper overtime wages. 29 C.F.R. § 531.60 (2012). Federal regulations define a tip as:

a sum presented by a customer as a gift or gratuity in recognition of some service performed for him. It is to be distinguished from payment of a charge, if any, made for the service. Whether a tip is to be given, and its amount, are matters determined solely by the customer, who has the right to determine who shall be the recipient of the gratuity.

29 C.F.R. § 531.52 (2012). However, “[a] compulsory charge for service, such as 15 percent of the amount of the bill, imposed on a customer by an employer’s establishment, is not a tip.” 29 C.F.R. § 531.55 (2012).

Here, there is no genuine factual dispute that the Recommended Tip was discretionary, and not a mandatory 20% charge. There is no dispute that Commonwealth’s invoices noted next to the Recommended Tip charge that “[t]he actual amount of the tip is in the discretion of the customer; any tip received will be remitted in full to the chauffeur.” (Rutter Aff. Ex. C.) Rutter, as well as Diane Pessolano, Commonwealth’s controller, both attested that the Recommended Tip was not mandatory and clients could and would pay either more or less than the recommended 20%. (Id. ¶ 24; Aff. of Diane Pessolano, dated Apr. 8, 2011, Dkt. Entry 26–12 at ¶¶ 7–8.). Plaintiff has failed to point to anything in the record rebutting this evidence. Therefore, the court finds that the Recommended Tip was a tip as a matter of law. See Chan v. Sung Yue Tung Corp., 2007 WL 313483, at *14 (S.D.N.Y. Feb.1, 2007) (Lynch, J.) (as opposed to a tip, “a ‘service charge’ is a mandatory charge imposed by an employer on a customer that is the property of the employer, not the employees, and becomes part of the employer’s gross receipts.”)…

For the forgoing reasons, the court finds that there is no genuine material question of fact as to the whether the Recommended Tip is mandatory, thus requiring that it be included in Plaintiff’s “regular rate.” Summary Judgment is granted to Defendants on this ground.”

Click Ellis v. Common Wealth Worldwide Chaueffuered Transp. of NY, LLC to read the entire Opinion and Order.

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D.Mass.: Personal Day Buy-Back, Yearly Sick Day Incentive Pay, Yearly Sick Leave Buy-Back Pay And Sick Leave Buy-Back Upon Separation Must Be Included In Officers’ “Regular Rate” Under The FLSA

Lemieux v. City of Holyoke

This case was before the Court on several cross-motions regarding a variety of issues arising from the application of various principles of the FLSA.  As discussed here, the Court determined that several types of incentive and “buy-back” pay necessarily had to be included in the plaintiffs’ “regular rate” of pay (and resulting overtime rates).

Discussing the issue of whether such pay need be included in the plaintiff-employees regular rate of pay under the FLSA, the Court held:

“Because the FLSA requires overtime compensation to be paid at “a rate not less than one and one-half times the regular rate at which [an employee] is employed,” 29 U.S.C. § 207(a), “[c]alculation of the correct ‘regular rate’ is the linchpin of the FLSA overtime requirement.” O’Brien, 350 F.3d at 294. Under the terms of the CBA, Holyoke firefighters, in certain circumstances, are entitled to receive augments to their base salary. At issue is whether the FLSA requires Defendants to include eight of these contractual remunerations-yearly personal day buy-back; yearly sick day incentive pay; yearly sick leave buy-back pay; sick leave buy-back upon retirement, resignation, or death; vacation buy-back upon retirement; yearly holiday pay; detail pay; and Student Awareness of Fire Education (“SAFE”) pay-in Plaintiffs’ “regular rate” for the purpose of calculating overtime compensation. Plaintiffs argue that the statute requires this; Defendants argue that it does not.

The FLSA defines “regular rate” to include “all remuneration for employment paid to, or on behalf of, the employee” unless it falls under one of the eight expressly provided exclusions listed in paragraphs (1) through (8) of subsection (e) of the FLSA. 29 U.S.C. § 207(e)(1)-(8). This “list of exceptions is exhaustive, the exceptions are to be interpreted narrowly against the employer, and the employer bears the burden of showing that an exception applies.” O’Brien, 350 F.3d at 294 (citations omitted).

For the reasons that follow, the court holds that Defendants are obligated to include yearly personal day buy-back, yearly sick day incentive pay, yearly sick leave buy-back pay, and sick leave buy-back upon retirement, resignation, or death in the officers’ “regular rate” under the FLSA.

a. Buy-Back Provisions.

The CBA entitles Holyoke firefighters, subject to certain conditions, to sell back to the city sick leave time, vacation time, personal time, and holiday time that they have accrued but not used. Plaintiffs argue that the city is required to include the value of these “buy-backs” in the “regular rate” because they are renumeration not falling under any of the exceptions listed in 207(e)(1)-(8). Defendants contend that none of these buy-backs are paid as compensation for Holyoke firefighters’ hours of employment, and that they are all, therefore, excludable under section 207(e)(2).

Section 207(e)(2) provides that “payments made for occasional periods when no work is performed due to vacation, holiday, illness, … or other similar cause; … [or] other similar payments to an employee which are not made as compensation for his hours of employment” are excludable from the “regular rate.” 29 U.S.C. § 207(e)(2). It is plain that the value of the accrued time in dispute, if utilized by the firefighters for its intended purpose, would be excluded under 207(e)(2). The question before the court is whether a lump sum payment, keyed to time accrued for the causes listed in section 207(e)(2), although paid later under a buy-back program, is also excludable under that section.

i. Holiday and vacation time buy-back.

As to payments for accrued holiday and vacation time, the law is clear that these payments are excludable under section 207(e)(2) regardless of whether they are paid contemporaneously for days missed or are deferred and paid in a lump sum. Department of Labor Regulations explicitly provide that the 207(e)(2) exclusion applies even when an employee foregoes a day off but still receives the pay. 29 C.F.R. § 778.219(a). Accordingly, holiday and vacation buy-back payments are excluded under section 207(e)(2) and need not be included in the regular rate under the FLSA.

ii. Personal time buy-back.

Similarly, buy-back payments for personal time are excludable from the regular rate under the FLSA. Personal time, like holiday and vacation time, is paid idle time which, subject to scheduling restrictions, may be used by firefighters at their discretion as a matter of right. Therefore, personal time buy-back payments are excludable under section 207(e)(2). 29 C.F.R. § 778.219(a).

However, one wrinkle remains. Under the terms of the CBA, unused personal time is cashed in at one hundred and ten percent (110%) of that year’s rate. (CBA ¶ 33.0(D)). It appears that this ten percent premium represents an incentive bonus for employees who forego taking personal days. Because the express terms of CBA make this ten percent bonus non-discretionary, see id. (“[t]he payout shall occur in January of the following year”), it must be included in the “regular rate” under the FLSA. 29 U.S.C. § 7(e)(3)(a); 29 C.F.R. 778.211(c). See also Walling v. Harnischfeger Corp., 325 U.S. 427, 431 (U.S.1945) (noting that employees “who receive incentive bonuses in addition to their guaranteed base pay clearly receive a greater regular rate than the minimum base rate”).

iii. Sick leave buy-back.

The slightly more difficult question concerns whether remuneration in the form of buy-back payments for unused sick leave time is includable in the “regular rate” under the FLSA. Article 11 of the CBA provides Holyoke firefighters with three opportunities to sell accrued but unused sick leave time back to the city. Unlike vacation and holiday time, the Department of Labor regulations do not address whether section 207(e)(2) excludes the value of deferred sick leave time from the FLSA’s regular rate. See 29 C.F.R. § 778.219(a) (discussing only vacation and holiday pay).

In a closely analogous case, however, the Eighth Circuit has held that “sick leave buy-back monies constitute remuneration for employment” because “in contrast to § 207(e)(2) payments, [they] are awarded to employees for coming to work consistently, not for work that was never performed.” Acton v. City of Columbia, 436 F.3d 969, 977 (8th Cir.2006). In so holding, the Acton court reasoned that “the primary effect of the buy-back program is to encourage firefighters to come to work regularly over a significant period of their employment tenure” and concluded that the buy-back payments awarded to employees for not using accrued sick leave were akin to non-discretionary bonuses that compensated them for fulfilling their general attendance duties. Id. at 979.

This interpretation has not been adopted by all courts. The Sixth Circuit, in a case cited by Defendants, has come to the opposite conclusion, holding simply that “awards for nonuse of sick leave are similar to payments made when no work is performed due to illness, which may be excluded from the regular rate [under 29 U.S.C. § 207(e)(2) ].” Featsent v. City of Youngstown, 70 F.3d 900, 905 (6th Cir.1995). The First Circuit, for its part, has yet to weigh in on the issue.

Having considered all of the available authority, the court finds the reasoning of Acton persuasive. Here, as in Acton, firefighters must have worked for a period of time sufficient to accumulate a certain amount of leave in order to qualify for buy-back pay. Moreover, by its own terms, the CBA refers to its various sick leave buy-back provisions as “incentive days” and “sick leave buy back bonuses.” These facts militate toward the conclusion that sick leave buy-back payments provided for in the CBA are more akin to non-discretionary incentive bonuses includable under 29 C.F.R. 778.211(c) than remuneration for work that was never performed and therefore excludable under 207(e)(2). See 29 C.F.R. 778.211 (expressly including “[a]ttendance bonuses” in the regular rate of pay). It is also pertinent that this position has been adopted by the Department of Labor in a 2009 wage and hour opinion letter, 2009 DOLWH LEXIS 23 (DOLWH 2009). Finally, the court finds this position to be the most consistent with the First Circuit’s gloss on section 207(e), that its “exceptions are to be interpreted narrowly against the employer….” O’Brien, 350 F.3d at 294.

For these reasons, the court finds that sick leave buy-back pay is remuneration that must be included in the calculation of the FLSA regular rate of pay.

b. Off Duty/Detail pay.

In addition to their regular duties, some Plaintiffs perform additional outside work-referred to as “details” or “off-duty work”-that is assigned to them on a voluntary basis when they are not regularly scheduled to be on duty. The FLSA is clear that “special detail” compensation for hours worked on behalf of “separate and independent” employers is excludable from the calculation of FLSA overtime. 29 U.S.C. § 207(p). Department of Labor regulations specify that the hours worked for another entity will be exempt under § 207(p)(1)‘s special detail work exemption so long as (1) the special detail assignment is undertaken and performed solely at the employee’s option, and (2) the two employers are “in fact separate and independent.” 29 C.F.R. § 553.227(b). See also Nolan v. City of Chicago, 125 F.Supp.2d 324, 336 (N.D.Ill.2000).

Plaintiffs do not dispute that a Holyoke firefighter’s decision to perform off-duty detail work is purely voluntary. Their sole contention is that the outside vendors for whom they perform duty work are not, in fact, separate and independent because: (1) when firefighters perform duty work, they receive payment via their regular payroll check; (2) the amount of pay received by firefighters for detail work is non-negotiable (except by the Union during collective bargaining); (3) firefighters do not receive insurance benefits or retirement benefits, or worker’s compensation from the third-party vendors; and (4) firefighters are required to wear their uniforms while working detail or off duty.

Each of these assertions, however, is contrary to the applicable Department of Labor regulations which provide:

The primary employer may facilitate the employment or affect the conditions of employment of such employees. For example, a police department may maintain a roster of officers who wish to perform such work. The department may also select the officers for special details from a list of those wishing to participate, negotiate their pay, and retain a fee for administrative expenses. The department may require that the separate and independent employer pay the fee for such services directly to the department, and establish procedures for the officers to receive their pay for the special details through the agency’s payroll system. Finally, the department may require that the officers observe their normal standards of conduct during such details and take disciplinary action against those who fail to do so.  29 C.F.R. § 553.227(d) (emphasis added).

Accordingly, the FLSA does not require that Plaintiffs’ “detail” work be included in the calculation of the regular rate of pay.

c. Student Awareness of Fire Education (“SAFE”) Pay.

Some Holyoke firefighters receive pay for fire prevention and education duties performed under the grant-funded Student Awareness of Fire Education (“SAFE”) program. SAFE work performed while a firefighter is on regularly scheduled duty is compensated at the standard contractual rate of pay, while SAFE work performed outside of a firefighter’s regular duty cycle is compensated as overtime at one and one half times the contractual rate of pay. (Dkt. No. 157, Ex. D, LaFond Dep. 37: 8-18.

Here, to the degree that SAFE payments represent additional remuneration at all (i.e., to the degree that they are not already included in Plaintiffs’ regular pay), they are excludable from the regular rate under sections 207(e)(5) and (7) of the FLSA. Each of these provisions permits employers to exclude properly compensated overtime payments from the “regular rate” of pay under the FLSA. See 29 U.S.C. § 207(e)(5) (excluding “extra compensation provided by a premium rate paid for certain hours … in excess of the employee’s normal working hours or regular working hours”); 29 U.S.C. § 207(e)(7) (excluding time and a half compensation “for work outside of the hours established in good faith by the contract or agreement as the basic, normal, or regular workday”). See also 29 C.F.R. 778.202. Because, as the record demonstrates, SAFE work performed outside of a firefighter’s regular duty cycle is already compensated as overtime, the FLSA does not require that Defendants include such time in the calculation of the FLSA’s regular rate of pay.”

Although the Court addressed issues that rarely come up in the context of FLSA litigation, its reliance on the general principle that any type of compensation not specifically excluded from calculating an employee’s regular rate under the FLSA must necessarily be included is instructive to employers who use any type of incentive or bonus pay.

Click Lemieux v. City of Holyoke to read the entire opinion.

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5th Cir.: Hourly “Per Diem” Allowances Were Part Of Plaintiff’s Regular Rate Of Pay, Because It Appeared “Per Diem” Label Was Simply A Scheme To Avoid Paying Overtime

Gagnon v. United Technisource Inc.

This case was before the Fifth Circuit on the Defendants’ appeal from the district court’s judgment awarding Plaintiff backpay, liquidated damages, and attorney’s fees and costs under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), 29 U.S.C. §§ 20119, against Defendants.

The Court cited the following facts, as relevant to its inquiry on appeal:

“Gagnon is a skilled craftsman with many years experience in prepping and painting the exterior and interior of aircrafts. When Gagnon began working for UTI, he executed a contract in which UTI agreed to pay Gagnon $5.50 per hour for “straight time” and $20.00 per hour for overtime.   Although the record indicates differing hourly wage rates for aircraft painters in the area and at the time in which Gagnon was working, none are remotely close to the $5.50 per hour that the UTI/AIS contracts established as Gagnon’s “straight time” wage. In addition to his straight time wage, UTI also agreed to pay Gagnon $12.50 for every hour he worked each week up to forty hours per week or a maximum of $500.00. The contract referred to this additional hourly pay as “per diem.”

About a year after he began working for UTI/AIS, Gagnon received a memo that notified him of a “raise in all pay.” The memo noted that “[w]e are pleased to announce that our client [Wing Aviation] has authorized a $1.00 per hour raise in all pay starting this pay check.” To effectuate the raise, however, Gagnon was not given an increase in his “straight time” pay rate of $5.50 per hour. Rather, he received a $1.00 raise in his hourly per diem for all hours worked under forty each week and a $1.00 increase in his overtime rate. The record does not indicate that this increase in hourly per diem was based on any reasonably approximated increase in Gagnon’s expenses.”

 Ultimately, the trial court found in Plaintiff’s favor, and awarded him his full damages claimed and liquidated damages.  The Defendants appealed, asserting that the court below erred in including Plaintiff’s “per diem” pay in calculating his regular rate of pay and resulting overtime rates.  Affirming the court below, the Fifth Circuit explained:

“UTI/AIS argue that their payment scheme does not violate the FLSA because the FLSA only requires employers to pay overtime at a rate of time and a half, and UTI/AIS paid Gagnon overtime at a rate more than three times his base pay. UTI/AIS also argue that Gagnon’s per diem reasonably approximated his reimbursable expenses and should therefore be excluded from the determination of Gagnon’s regular rate for the purposes of overtime pay. According to UTI/AIS, “[i]t cannot be argued … [that] the per diem was a ploy to avoid paying Gagnon overtime compensation.” We disagree.

The FLSA requires that non-exempt employees who work more than forty hours in a work week must be paid one and one-half times their “regular rate” of pay. 29 U.S.C. § 207(a)(1). The FLSA broadly defines “regular rate” as the hourly rate actually paid the employee for “all remuneration for employment.” 29 U.S.C. § 207(e); see also Walling v. Helmerich & Payne, Inc., 323 U.S. 37, 42 (1944). “The regular rate by its very nature must reflect all payments which the parties have agreed shall be received regularly during the workweek, exclusive of overtime payments.” Bay Ridge Operating Co. v. Aaron, 334 U.S. 446, 461 (1948). The “regular rate” becomes a mathematical computation once the parties have decided on the amount of wages and the mode of payment, which is unaffected by any designation to the contrary in the wage contract. Id. The “regular rate” is not an arbitrary labelit is an actual fact. Id.

Here, UTI/AIS have tried to avoid paying Gagnon a higher “regular rate” by artificially designating a portion of Gagnon’s wages as “straight time” and a portion as “per diem.” Although per diem can be excluded from an employee’s regular rate, 29 U.S.C. § 207(e)(2); see also 29 C.F.R. § 778.217(b), the “ ‘regular rate’ of pay … cannot be left to a declaration by the parties as to what is to be treated as the regular rate for an employee; it must be drawn from what happens under the employment contract.” 29 C.F.R. § 778.108 (citing Bay Ridge Operating Co., 334 U.S. at 465). The Department of Labor has recognized that when, as here, the amount of per diem varies with the amount of hours worked, the per diem payments are part of the regular rate in their entirety.

Furthermore, we are suspicious of UTI/AIS’s claims that Gagnon’s employment contracts were not a scheme to avoid paying overtime. It is difficult to believe that a skilled craftsman would accept a wage so close to the minimum wage when the prevailing wage for similarly skilled craftsmen was approximately three times the minimum wage. We are similarly troubled by the fact that the combined “straight time” and “per diem” hourly rates approximately match the prevailing wage for aircraft painters. Further, it is suspect that a “raise in all pay” was effectuated by increasing the hourly “per diem” rate rather than the “straight time” rate. Finally, we can conceive of no reason why a legitimate per diem would vary by the hour and be capped at the forty-hour mark, which not-so-coincidentally corresponds to the point at which regular wages stop and the overtime rate applies.

We find this case analogous to other cases in which employers have sought to artificially lower an employee’s regular rate by mischaracterizing a portion of it as a bonus or where employees were paid low “straight rates” for the first hour or two worked-usually set around minimum wage-after which they earned one and one half times the straight rate, and were consequently paid no premium for their actual overtime work. See Walling v. Youngerman-Reynolds Hardwood Co., 325 U.S. 419, 425 (1945); see also 29 C.F.R. § 778.502.

We hold that Gagnon’s hourly per diem allowances of $12.50 and $13.50 were part of his hourly “remuneration for employment” and must be considered in his regular rate for the purpose of determining overtime pay due under the FLSA.   Helmerich & Payne, 323 U.S. at 42. Accordingly, we affirm the district court’s determination that UTI/AIS violated the FLSA by not including Gagnon’s per diem in their calculation of his regular rate.”

Not discussed here, the Court also rejected Defendants’ claim that it was entitled to prevail on its counterclaims, based on the same facts.  To read the entire decision click here.

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9th Cir.: Different Regular Hourly Rates For Same Work On Different Shifts Does Not Violate FLSA; No Evidence That Defendant Is Attempting To Avoid Paying Overtime Wages

Parth v. Pomona Valley Hosp. Medical Center

A nurse brought collective action against hospital, alleging that hospital violated the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) by creating a pay plan that paid nurses working 12-hour shifts a lower base hourly rate than nurses working 8-hour shifts. The United States District Court for the Central District of California, Margaret M. Morrow, J., granted summary judgment to hospital, and nurse appealed.  The Ninth Circuit affirmed, holding that: “[w]hen an employer changes its shift schedule to accommodate its employees’ scheduling desires, the mere fact that pay rates changed, between the old and new scheduling schemes in an attempt to keep overall pay revenue-neutral, does not establish a violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act’s (“FLSA’s”) overtime pay requirements.”  At issue was Defendant’s pay policy whereby they paid nurses working a 12 hour shift lower base hourly pay than those working 8 hour shifts.

Analyzing the issue, the Court stated, “[Plaintiff] argues that PVHMC violated the FLSA by creating a pay plan that pays nurses working 12-hour shifts a lower base hourly rate than nurses who work 8-hour shifts. In support of her argument, Parth contends that: (A) PVHMC cannot reduce the base pay for nurses working the 12-hour shift, (B) the 12-hour base pay rate is an “artifice” designed to avoid the FLSA’s overtime and maximum hours requirements, and (C) PVHMC cannot justify the base hourly pay rate differences between the 8-hour and 12-hour shifts, because nurses working both shifts perform the same job duties.

Parth asserts that PVHMC’s pay plan violates the FLSA, because it was designed to “make overtime payments cost neutral,” and that such a scheme is lawful only when implemented “before the employer was subject to the FLSA.” We disagree. The 12-hour shift scheduling practice was first initiated at the nurses’ request. The 12-hour shift scheduling practice was then memorialized in a collective bargaining agreement as a result of negotiations between Local 121 and PVHMC (again initiated at the nurses’ request). The parties do not dispute that the wages paid under the pay plan are more than the minimum wages under federal law. We find no reason to invalidate the agreement between the parties. There is no justification in the law and no public policy rationale for doing so. Parth also failed to cite (either before the district court or on appeal) any authority to suggest that a voluntary base rate wage reduction made in exchange for a 12-hour shift schedule was unlawful.

The FLSA requires employers to pay employees, who work more than 40 hours in a work week, one and a half times the employees’ “regular rate” of pay. 29 U.S.C. § 207(a)(1). The Supreme Court interprets “regular rate” to mean “the hourly rate actually paid the employee for the normal, non-overtime workweek for which he is employed.” Walling v. Youngerman-Reynolds Hardwood Co., Inc., 325 U.S. 419, 424 (1945). Congress’s purpose in enacting the FLSA “was to protect all covered workers from substandard wages and oppressive working hours.” Barrentine v. Arkansas-Best Freight System, Inc., 450 U.S. 728, 739, 101 S.Ct. 1437, 67 L.Ed.2d 641 (1981). See also Adair v. City of Kirkland, 185 F.3d 1055, 1059 (9th Cir.1999). Under the FLSA, employers and employees are generally “free to establish [the] regular [non-overtime] rate at any point and in any manner they see fit,” “[a]s long as the minimum hourly rates established by Section 6 [of the FLSA] are respected.” Youngerman-Reynolds, 325 U.S. at 424. Though our Circuit has never been asked to determine whether an employer subject to the FLSA may alter the “regular rate” of pay in order to provide employees a schedule they desire, we conclude that such an arrangement does not contravene the FLSA’s purpose.

Soon after Congress enacted the FLSA, but before it became effective, many employers altered their compensation schemes-by lowering base hourly rates-to ensure that they paid employees the same overall wages after complying with the FLSA’s overtime requirements. See, e.g., Walling v. A.H. Belo Corp., 316 U.S. 624, 628-30, 62 S.Ct. 1223, 86 L.Ed. 1716 (1942). In Belo, the Supreme Court examined these compensation practices and held that, even when the employer’s purpose in lowering hourly base rates “was to permit as far as possible the payment of the same total weekly wage after the [FLSA] as before…. [N]othing in the [FLSA] bars an employer from contracting with his employees to pay them the same wages that they received previously, so long as the new rate equals or exceeds the minimum required by the [FLSA].” Id. at 630.

The Eleventh Circuit followed Belo’s holding in a case involving a municipal employer. See Wethington v. City of Montgomery, 935 F.2d 222 (11th Cir.1991). “When passed in 1938, the FLSA did not apply to any state or local employers.” Id. (citing Garcia v. San Antonio Metro. Transit Auth., 469 U.S. 528, 533, 105 S.Ct. 1005, 83 L.Ed.2d 1016 (1985)). Congress expanded the FLSA’s definition of “employer” in 1974 to include municipalities. In Garcia, the Supreme Court reversed its previously-established precedent and held that state and local governments could be liable for FLSA violations.   Wethington, 935 F.2d at 224-25. Given the potential for sudden liability, Congress delayed application of the FLSA to municipal employers until April 15, 1986. Id. At 225 (citing Fair Labor Standards Amendments of 1985, Pub.L. No. 99-150, § 2(c), 99 Stat. 787, 788). Accordingly, municipal employers such as the City of Montgomery (the “City”) became subject to the FLSA as of April 15, 1986.

In Wethington, the City endeavored to create and implement a “budget-neutral” plan that would ensure FLSA compliance before April 15, 1986.   Wethington, 935 F.2d at 225. Prior to Garcia, the City paid its fire fighters on a salary basis, which covered “a cycle of three pay periods, each involving varied hours over 14 days: one 104-hour period, one 112-hour period, and one 120-hour period. For this 42-day, 336-hour cycle, a typical fire fighter would receive $2,208.45. The actual working time within these periods consisted of rotations of duty in which the fire fighters worked 24 hours, were off duty for 48 hours, worked another 24 hours, and so on.” Id. This scheme did not provide for overtime, so in June 1985, the City adopted a new hourly wage scale to comply with the FLSA. Id.

The City determined that under the FLSA, 316 of the 336 hours in the 42-day cycle would be considered regular hours, while 20 would be considered overtime. Id. In order to create a new, yet “budget-neutral,” pay plan that incorporated time-and-a-half overtime pay, the City, “for the purpose of calculation, increased the [20] overtime hours by 50%. [It] then took the fictitious total hours of 346 (316 regular plus 30 adjusted overtime) and divided them into the fire fighters’ total pay for that period to produce a per-hour wage of $6.3828.” Id. The revised system ensured that City fire fighters would work the same hours and shifts as before, but would receive $6.3828 per hour for 316 regular hours, and $9.5742 ($6.3828 multiplied by 1.5 as required by the FLSA) per hour for 20 hours of overtime, totaling $2,208.4488. Id. “Therefore the total salary and total hours did not change. The payment system and the equivalent hourly rates of pay, however, did change. Under the prior, salary system, the converted hourly rate amounted to $6.57. Under the revised system, the effective rate was decreased to $6.38.” Id. The fire fighters sued the City, making an argument similar to Parth’s.

Citing Belo, the Eleventh Circuit held that, if a new pay plan “actually employed is valid under the [FLSA], the fact that the regular rate adopted prior to the [FLSA’s] effective date produces a total pay no greater than the total pay under a prior system is not enough to establish a violation of the FLSA.” Id. at 229. The court “read the Belo language to support the City’s argument that it is not a violation of the [FLSA] to reduce, prior to the effective date of the [FLSA], the hourly rate paid employees in order to avoid greater payments upon application of the FLSA.” Id.

We recognize that the Belo and Wethington cases dealt with employers creating cost-neutral pay plans that lowered employees’ base hourly rates before becoming subject to the FLSA. However, there is no Supreme Court or Ninth Circuit case that says whether an employer can or cannot do so while subject to the FLSA. Courts around the country have dealt with similar matters, with conflicting results. Compare, e.g., Conner v. Celanese, Ltd., 428 F.Supp.2d 628, 637 (S.D.Tex.2006) (holding that “an employer can comply with the FLSA by reducing the ‘regular’ wage paid to its employees and pay overtime at one and one-half times the reduced regular rate such that the total pay to the employees remains the same”), with Rhodes v. Bedford County, Tenn., 734 F.Supp. 289, 292 (E.D.Tenn.1990) (“The court is of the opinion that defendant’s implementation of [a revised pay plan similar to PVHMC’s] constitutes a scheme intended to avoid the overtime requirements of § 7. [Even though it] result[ed] in the workers being paid the same amount for the same number of hours worked both before and after the changeover. This was accomplished by artificially altering plaintiffs’ ‘regular rate.’ ”).

Because this is a case of first impression for us, we agree with the district court’s approach and use Supreme Court precedent on pre-FLSA pay plan alterations for guidance on how to proceed under the facts before us. In Belo, 316 U.S. at 630, the Supreme Court stated that “nothing in the [FLSA] bars an employer from contracting with his employees to pay them the same wages that they received previously, so long as the new rate equals or exceeds the minimum rate required by the FLSA.” Further, Youngerman-Reynolds, 325 U.S. at 424, states that “[a]s long as the minimum hourly rates established by Section 6 [of the FLSA] are respected, the employer and employee are free to establish this regular rate at any point and in any matter they see fit.” The PVHMC pay plan conforms with this precedent.

Additionally, we look to the purpose of the FLSA, which is “to ensure that each [covered] employee … would receive ‘[a] fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work’ and would be protected from the evil of ‘overwork’ as well as ‘under-pay.’ “ Williamson v. Gen. Dynamics Corp., 208 F.3d 1144, 1150 (9th Cir.2000) (quoting Barrentine, 450 U.S. at 739). The pay practice sought by PVHMC’s nurses, and agreed to by Parth, Local 121, and PVHMC, ensures that employees who work beyond eight hours in a day receive time-and-a-half for their efforts. It also ensures that employees who work more than twelve hours in a day receive “double-time” pay. We therefore conclude that the pay practice protects employees from the evils of overwork and underpay, and properly incentivizes PVHMC from overworking its nurses.

Accordingly, we conclude that the arrangement between Parth and PVHMC does not violate the FLSA, because it is not prohibited under the statute, and it does not contravene the FLSA’s purpose. Parth cannot cite any relevant case law to support her argument that PVHMC cannot respond to its employees’ requests for an alternative work schedule by adopting the sought-after schedule and paying the employees the same wages they received under the less-desirable schedule. To us, PVHMC’s actions seem perfectly reasonable, were requested by the nurses (who work the schedules), and are the result of a bargained-for exchange between the hospital administration and Local 121.

Parth also argues that the 12-hour shift pay plan is essentially an artifice to avoid paying overtime. The district court examined this argument. It noted that Parth could cite “no authority for the proposition that these facts show the 12-hour rate was a subterfuge that violated the FLSA.” We agree.

Parth’s argument hinges on two issues: first, whether PVHMC’s pay plan contravenes the FLSA’s purpose; second, whether the revised “regular rate” is unrealistic and artificial.

Employers cannot lawfully avoid the FLSA’s overtime provisions “by setting an artificially low hourly rate upon which overtime pay is to be based and making up the additional compensation due to employees by other means.” 29 C.F.R. § 778.500(a). The FLSA also prohibits employers from adopting “split-day” plans in which the employee’s hours are arbitrarily divided in such a way as to avoid overtime payments. Walling v. Helmerich & Payne, Inc., 323 U.S. 37, 40, 65 S.Ct. 11, 89 L.Ed. 29 (1944); 29 C.F.R. § 778.501. Both types of plans work in a manner so that employees do not earn overtime compensation, regardless of how many hours they worked.

An employee’s “regular rate” of pay is “the hourly rate actually paid the employee for the normal, non-overtime workweek for which [s]he is employed.” Youngerman-Reynolds, 325 U.S. at 424. See also United States v. Rosen-wasser, 323 U.S. 360, 363-64, 65 S.Ct. 295, 89 L.Ed. 301 (1945) (holding that “Section 7(a) [of the FLSA] refers to a ‘regular rate’ which we have defined to mean ‘the hourly rate actually paid for the normal, non-overtime workweek.’ “ (quoting Helmerich & Payne, Inc., 323 U.S. at 40)). PVHMC’s regular rate for 12-hour shift nurses is the rate it pays for the first eight hours of a 12-hour shift. The pay plan does not fall under either of the prohibited categories discussed above.

Parth contends that PVHMC’s regular rate for nurses working the 12-hour shift is artificial, and therefore unlawful, relying on Youngerman-Reynolds to support her argument. Youngerman-Reynolds holds that employers cannot skirt the FLSA’s requirements by creating a new payment scheme and corresponding lower regular rate that does not reflect the economic reality of the employees’ work. Youngerman-Reynolds, 325 U.S. at 425. In Youngerman-Reynolds, an employer paid its employees a piece rate determined by the number of boards they ricked and stacked. Id. at 420-21. When generating the new hourly rate from which it would base overtime compensation under the FLSA, the employer created an arbitrary per-hour piece rate that did not reflect the actual rate at which its employees stacked and ricked wood. Id. at 421-23. The Supreme Court held that the scheme violated Congress’s goals in enacting the FLSA-“inducing the employer to reduce the hours of work and to employ more [workers],” and “compensating the employees for the burden of a long work-week.” Id. at 423-24.

PVHMC’s plan, however, does not impinge on Congress’s goals. It provides employees more scheduling flexibility, allows them to spend less time commuting to work (because they spend fewer days at work), and ensures that PVHMC does not retain an incentive to ask the nurses to work longer hours.

Parth also asserts that the regular rate is “unrealistic” and “artificial,” in violation of the Supreme Court’s admonition in Helmerich & Payne, Inc., 323 U.S. at 42, that a regular rate cannot be derived “in a wholly unrealistic and artificial manner.” See also Adams v. Dep’t of Juvenile Justice of New York, 143 F.3d 61, 67-68 (2d Cir.1998) (stating that the regular rate may not be set in a “wholly unrealistic and artificial manner” that does not reflect actual practice). The Department of Labor has provided regulations to guide employers who wish to ensure their regular rates are not deemed artificial or unrealistic. See 29 C.F.R. § 778.500(a) (“[T]he overtime provisions of the act cannot be avoided by setting an artificially low hourly rate upon which overtime pay is to be based and making up the additional compensation due to employees by other means”). Parth produced no evidence to show that the regular rates memorialized in the CBA were artificially low, or that PVHMC was attempting to set rates in a manner that would relieve it of the obligation to pay time-and-a-half whenever an employee worked more than eight hours in a day.

Moreover, Parth and the other nurses are paid overtime under the PVHMC plan. Their overtime wages are calculated according to the standards set forth in 29 C.F.R. § 778.115 and the CBA. Parth appears to take issue with the manner by which her “regular pay” is calculated, and basically argues that instead of using the weighted average method of determining the regular rate, PVHMC should be required to use the “average blended rate” of pay. The “average blended rate” is the total pay worked by a nurse in a 12-hour shift, divided by 12. To the extent Parth’s argument is that average blended rate calculation is the only permissible “regular rate” of pay under the FLSA, we reject it. The weighted average method of calculation is not prohibited by the FLSA, and has been upheld by other circuits. See, e.g., Gorman, 488 F.3d at 596 (“This Court has already validated the weighted average method of determining the regular rate, which we described as ‘properly calculated by adding all of the wages payable for the hours worked at the applicable shift rates and dividing by the total number of hours worked.’) (quoting Brock v. Wila-mowsky, 833 F.2d 11, 14 (2d Cir.1987)).

The district court noted that “Parth proffer[ed] no argument or support for the proposition that the regular rate for the 12-hour [nurses] was not properly determined, or that overtime pay was not properly calculated using the pay rates set out in the CBA.” On appeal, Parth does not challenge the calculation of the overtime rate, except to say that the regular rate upon which it is based is impermissible. Accordingly, we conclude that Parth has not presented any evidence or convincing authority to suggest that PVHMC’s pay plan contravenes Congress’s goals in enacting the FLSA or is an artifice to avoid paying overtime.

Parth also argues that PVHMC’s pay plan is unlawful, because nurses working both the 8-hour and 12-hour shifts perform the same work, but are paid at different rates. We find no authority that suggests employees cannot be paid different rates for different shifts, and Parth fails to present any authority to the contrary. We do, however, find ample authority from other circuits that supports PVHMC’s argument that workers working different shifts may be paid different rates. See, e.g., Gorman, 488 F.3d at 595-97; Conner, 428 F.Supp.2d at 636-37; Allen v. Bd. of Pub. Educ., 495 F.3d 1306, 1312-13 (11th Cir.2007).

Parth derives her sole support for this argument from 29 C.F.R. § 778.316, which prohibits employers from setting one hourly rate for the first 40 hours of work and a lower hourly rate for statutory overtime hours. See 29 C.F.R. § 778.316. The regulation does not, however, speak to the circumstances present in this case. 29 C .F.R. § 778.316 makes no reference to whether employees working one shift over another may or may not be paid a different wage. Parth has therefore failed to meet her burden to show that this scheme is unlawful.”

Accordingly, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision to grant Defendant summary judgment.

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