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D.Mass.: Offsets to Unpaid Overtime, Pursuant to § 207(h)(2) of FLSA, Attributable Only to Singular Workweeks in Which Both Premiums and Overtime Earned Simultaneously
Rudy v. City of Lowell
This case was before court on defendant’s motion for summary judgment, as to the methodology applicable to calculate plaintiff’s damages. The interesting, but rarely raised issue: to the extent that the employer is entitled to an offset for certain premium compensation paid to the employee, to what extent can that offset reduce the unpaid overtime wage damages sought by the employee? Holding that such offsets are only applicable in singular workweeks (i.e. they may only be taken in the week in which the payment giving rise to the offset occurred), the court explained:
“Section 207(h) (2) of the FLSA provides that extra compensation paid as described in paragraphs (5), (6), and (7) of subsection (e) of this section shall be creditable toward overtime compensation payable pursuant to this section.
29 U.S.C. § 207(h)(2). Only the “premium” portion of the contractual overtime rate (the extra one-half on top of the regular rate) may be used to offset the defendant’s statutory overtime liability. O’Brien v. Town of Agawam, 350 F.3d 279, 289 (1st Cir.2003) (“O’Brien I” ).
Here, the CBA allows employees to treat certain non-work days such as vacation, sick and personal days as hours actually worked for the purpose of determining overtime hours. The City also pays some workers time and one-half for working on holidays. The parties do not dispute that the extra compensation provided for in the plaintiffs’ CBA falls within the compensation described in subsection (5), (6) and (7) and can be used to offset defendant’s underpayment, pursuant to § 207(h)(2).
The parties do dispute, however, whether premium compensation earned in one week can be used to offset an underpayment in a different week. Plaintiffs argue that their damages for unpaid overtime should be calculated on a workweek basis and that any offsets pursuant to § 207(h)(2) may only be attributed to the singular workweeks in which the premiums and overtime were earned. In other words, an underpayment one week cannot be offset by a premium payment made in a different week. The defendant contends, to the contrary, that it is entitled to a “cumulative offset”, consisting of all premium payments, against any FLSA overtime it owes, regardless of when the premium payments were earned or made.
The FLSA does not provide an explicit answer to this difference of interpretation and the United States Circuit Courts have taken divergent positions. Some courts have held that § 207(h) offsets should be calculated on a workweek basis. Herman v. Fabri-Centers of Am., Inc., 308 F.3d 580, 585-93 (6th Cir.2002); Howard v. City of Springfield, 274 F.3d 1141, 1147-49 (7th Cir.2001); Roland Elec. Co. v. Black, 163 F.2d 417, 420 (4th Cir.1947); Conzo v. City of New York, 667 F.Supp.2d 279, 291 (S.D.N.Y.2009); Bell v. Iowa Turkey Growers Co-op., 407 F.Supp.2d 1051, 1063 (S.D.Iowa 2006); Nolan v. City of Chicago, 125 F.2d 324, 331 (N.D.Ill.2000). Other courts have allowed defendants to apply a cumulative offset. Singer v. City of Waco, 324 F.3d 813, 826-28 (5th Cir.2003); Kohlheim v. Glynn County, 915 F.2d 1473, 1481 (11th Cir.1990).
The First Circuit has not directly addressed this issue but other sessions in this District have. In O’Brien v. Town of Agawam, United States District Judge Michael A. Ponsor addressed facts analogous to those at bar and held that the employer could apply a cumulative offset. 491 F.Supp.2d 170, 176 (D.Mass.2007) (“O’Brien II” ). The Court surmised that the First Circuit would hold accordingly given its holding in Lupien v. City of Marlborough. Id. at 175. In Lupien, the employer’s practice of compensating employees for overtime by use of compensatory time (“comp time”), instead of in cash, violated the FLSA. 387 F.3d 83 (1st Cir.2004). With respect to damages, the First Circuit held that the employer did not have to pay its employees for overtime hours for which the employee had used comp time, regardless of when the employee used the comp time. The Court reasoned that paying the employees for overtime hours for which they had used comp time would result in double payment for the same overtime hours. In Murphy v. Town of Natick, another case analogous to this one, United States District Judge Richard G. Stearns agreed with the holding in O’Brien II and also allowed defendants to apply a cumulative offset. 516 F.Supp.2d 153, 160-61 (D.Mass.2007).
Although the two cases in this District are directly analogous to this case, the Court disagrees with them with respect to their interpretation of the FLSA and of Lupien. A further analysis of the Lupien case, the purpose of the FLSA and its interpretation by the Department of Labor (“the DOL”) and the First Circuit’s language in O’Brien I all undermine the position adopted by the courts in O’Brien II and Murphy. Rather, they lead to the conclusion that § 207(h)(2) offsets should be calculated on a workweek basis for the following reasons:
1. This case is distinguishable from Lupien and other First Circuit case law indicates support for a workweek offset model. Lupien dealt with an application of § 207(o) (regulating the use of compensatory time), not § 207(h). In fact, § 207(h) is not referred to in that opinion. Furthermore, here, the employees were not given the option of taking comp time rather than overtime payments. Thus, there is no risk in our case, as there was in Lupien, that the plaintiffs will be compensated twice for the same hours. Thus, the Court concludes that the First Circuit’s decision in Lupien does not indicate how it would decide the question at bar.
More on point is the First Circuit’s discussion of § 207(h)(2) in O’Brien I, in which it stated that
The regulations specifically explain how to treat such mid-workweek contractual overtime payments under the Act: only the premium portion of the contractual overtime rate (that is, the amount in excess of the employee’s regular rate) is deemed “overtime” pay and may be offset against any statutory overtime liability in the same week. O’Brien I, 350 F.3d at 289 (citing 29 C.F.R. §§ 778.201(a), 202(a)) (emphasis added). Thus, although not resolving the offset issue in that decision, the First Circuit conveyed its inclination by specifying that offsets pursuant to § 207(h)(2) would apply “in the same week”.
2. The FLSA overtime requirement uses a single workweek as its basic unit of measurement. Scott v. City of New York, 592 F.Supp.2d 475, 484 (S.D.N.Y.2008). Section 207(a)(1) sets forth the basic overtime rule:
no employer shall employ any of his employees … for a workweek longer than forty hours unless such employee receives compensation for his employment in excess of the hours above specified at a rate not less than one and one-half times the regular rate at which he is employed.
The focus on the unitary workweek is prevalent throughout § 207 and the DOL’s interpretation of that section. For example, 29 C.F.R. § 778.103 directs employers to calculate overtime liability on a weekly basis. Further, 29 C.F.R. § 778.104 provides that “[t]he Act takes a single workweek as its standard” and an employer cannot average the number of hours an employee worked in two weeks in order to avoid paying overtime:
[I]f an employee works 30 hours one week and 50 hours the next, he must receive overtime compensation for the overtime hours worked beyond the applicable maximum in the second week, even though the average number of hours worked in the 2 weeks is 40.
It is clear from § 778.104 that cumulative offsets were not contemplated by the DOL. In addition, where the single workweek model is problematic, i.e. when applied to firefighters and law enforcement officers, the FLSA includes a very specific and limited exception. See 29 U.S.C. § 207(k).
With regard to the exact issue before the Court, 29 C.F.R. § 778.202(c) explains that credits pursuant to § 207(h) may be given for overtime due “in that workweek”. See Howard, 274 F.3d at 1148-49; Conzo, 667 F.Supp.2d at 290. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the DOL has also issued an opinion letter stating that surplus overtime premium payments, which may be credited against overtime1 pay pursuant to section 7(h) of FLSA, may not be carried forward or applied retroactively to satisfy an employer’s overtime pay obligation in future or past pay periods.
Letter from Herbert J. Cohen, Deputy Administrator, U.S. Dep’t of Labor, WH-526, 1985 WL 304329 (Dec. 23, 1985).
3. Overtime payments are intended to be paid as soon as is practicable. Although they are not entitled to deference by this Court, several of the DOL’s official interpretations of § 207 demonstrate the FLSA’s emphasis on ensuring that overtime payments are made soon after they are earned. Howard, 274 F.3d at 1148. For instance, 29 C.F.R. § 778.106 provides that overtime payments need not be paid weekly but must be paid as soon as is practicable:
Payment may not be delayed for a period longer than is reasonably necessary for the employer to compute and arrange for payment of the amount due and in no event may payment be delayed beyond the next payday after such computation can be made. See also Nolan, 125 F.Supp.2d at 332 (discussing 29 C.F.R. § 778.106 and holding that offsets for overtime paid apply on a pay period basis).
The reason for requiring employers to calculate and make overtime payments as soon as practicable is obvious: employees are entitled to know how much they will be paid and to prompt payment of what they have earned. As poignantly stated by the Seventh Circuit in Howard v. City of Springfield, if § 207(h)(2) were to permit a cumulative offset, employers could withhold overtime earnings in order to offset them against potential “short” weeks in the future. 274 F.3d at 1148-49. Under such a model, an employee’s overtime payments could be put on hold indefinitely until the employer is either willing or compelled to pay. That outcome is not only illogical but also contradicts the FLSA’s focus on the workweek as a unit and its concern with prompt overtime payments.
In fact, this case uniquely illustrates why a workweek offset is appropriate: if the City had correctly calculated its overtime rate and applied the § 207(h)(2) offsets contemporaneously, it would not have been able to apply those offsets to obligations incurred one or two years later. See id. at 1148. The workweek method of calculating offsets most closely reproduces what the parties would be entitled to had there been no error in the City’s initial computation of its overtime liability. See Nolan, 125 F.Supp.2d at 333.
4. The purpose of the FLSA, to protect workers from “excessive work hours and substandard wages”, is best served by the workweek offset model. Howard, 274 F.3d at 1148; see Herman, 308 F.3d at 585-93. This was clearly articulated in Scott v. City of New York, in which the DOL advocated for the workweek offset model. 592 F.Supp.2d at 484. The District Court in that case found that “both the structure of the Act and its legislative history lend credence to DoL’s interpretation.” Id. The Court explained how a cumulative offset undermines the protections afforded by the FLSA:
The [overtime] requirement protects workers from the imposition of excessive hours by placing an immediate cost on the employer. If employers were allowed to bank credit for contractual overtime against future obligations to pay statutory overtime, it would place workers in the employer’s debt[.] Id. In essence, it would require employees to work large blocks of overtime without premium compensation.
5. Finally, the arguments for applying a cumulative offset are unpersuasive. The City claims that a workweek offset will result in a windfall to the employees but that seems implausible given the fact that, if the City had been correctly calculating its overtime rate and applying the § 207(h)(2) offset at every pay period, the offset would have been applied only to the overtime liability in that pay period. Moreover, the circuit court cases cited by the City do not provide support for a cumulative offset. In Singer v. City of Waco, 324 F.3d at 827, the Fifth Circuit held that § 207(h) was inapplicable, while in Kohlheim v. Glynn County, 915 F.2d at 1481, the Eleventh Circuit did not even explain why it allowed a cumulative offset.
In summary, the Court finds that the plaintiffs’ method of calculating damages is most compatible with both the language and purpose of the FLSA’s overtime requirements and the First Circuit’s understanding of those requirements. As such, the plaintiffs’ damages for unpaid overtime should be calculated on a workweek basis and any offsets pursuant to § 207(h)(2) should be attributed only to the singular workweeks in which both premiums and overtime were earned. The Court concludes that only the premium portions of the extra payments, i.e. the extra one-half of the regular rate, may be used to offset the City’s overtime liability. O’Brien II, 491 F.Supp.2d at 176.”
Click Rudy v. City of Lowell to read the entire order.