United States: The Road to FLSA Litigation is Often Paved With Good Intentions

Last Updated: February 8 2018
Article by Kevin M. Young and Kara Goodwin

Even as FLSA litigation has surged to historic highs, it is rare to see a nefarious violation of the Act by a manager or supervisor. Far more prevalent, it seems, are stories of managers who, while intending to afford employees freedom and flexibility, instead trip over one of many hurdles scattered across the 1938 legislation. At a time when plaintiffs' attorneys are more regularly naming individual managers, not just corporations, as FLSA defendants, preventing these stories is important as ever.

In our experience, managers across the corporate landscape grasp broad wage-hour ground rules and concepts, such as requiring employees to clock in before they start work and paying employees at least minimum wage. Training is important in these areas, but it is not quite where the rubber meets the road.

Far more important a topic, in our experience, are the ways in which a manager's well-intentioned decisions can result in potential violations of the FLSA. Here, in honor of the Act's upcoming 80th birthday, we offer eight hypothetical examples of this. (Eighty was a bridge too far for this post.) While far from exhaustive, these are the types of examples that can provide a basis for meaningful conversations with managers and supervisors about the relevant—and sometimes hidden—contours of the FLSA.

  1. "You had a great January, but let's have an even better in February. Whoever makes 50 sales will get a $150 bonus. This isn't the company's thing, it's my thing." In a vacuum, incentivizing employees to perform isn't just okay—it is good management. Unfortunately, the nature of the incentive can have serious wage-hour implications. First, if the incentive is non-discretionary, it must be included in the "regular rate" of pay, upon which overtime pay is based. It makes no difference if the incentive is offered company-wide or only on a small team. As a distant second, occasionally production bonuses can have an unintended effect of encouraging after-hours work, which could be an issue if those hours aren't recorded and paid. Supervisors should take care to ensure that any incentive payment is: (i) accounted for, if necessary, in the overtime calculation; and (ii) not interpreted as a relaxation of standing policies, such as those prohibiting off-the-clock work.
  2. "Of course you can take it home!" It's 5 pm and an hourly employee scheduled until 6:00 asks his supervisor if he may leave early to pick up his kid—he promises to finish his work at home later that night. Wanting to promote balance and flexibility, the supervisor agrees. While there is nothing illegal about this, the supervisor must understand potential wage-hour ramifications. An employer must pay for work it knows about or reasonably should know about, regardless of when or where the work occurs. If a supervisor is going to authorize after-hours remote work, it is essential that he or she also enforce timekeeping practices that prevent that work from going unrecorded and unpaid.
  3. "Have a minute to help me out? You can take the remaining 20 minutes of your 30-minute lunch break after we're done." It seems harmless enough—after all, the employee will end up getting a full 30 minutes either way. But if the employer treats meal breaks, including this one, as unpaid, this could create an issue. The FLSA generally requires that an unpaid meal break like this one be uninterrupted and contiguous. Here, the supervisor should know that the employee must either (a) be paid for the whole break, or (b) be permitted to take his or her full break at a later time.
  4. "Rather than recording overtime this week, why don't you take off a few hours early next Friday and spend the afternoon with your kid?" If an employee works over 40 hours in a workweek, the FLSA requires that the employee be paid overtime. Private-sector employers should not offer or allow compensatory time off in future workweeks in lieu of overtime, even if an employee requests it.
  5. "Jim volunteered an additional hour last night because he wants to prove he's worth the promotion. I respect that sort of drive...heck, I did the same thing." In nearly every context, the fact that an employee "volunteers" his or her work time is not a sound reason for failing to pay the employee for the associated work.
  6. "Our team party starts at 3 pm. You can work through it, but I'd certainly prefer to see you there—it's important to our team culture." Social gatherings during the workday should typically be paid. Even if scheduled after hours, the time needs to be paid for nonexempt employees required to attend. The grey area, of course, lies between mandatory and purely voluntary attendance. Proof that attendance was strongly encouraged could support a finding that attendance was not purely voluntary and that the time should be paid.
  7. "My team knows that if they ask for OT, I will always approve it. The only reason I didn't pay Alexa's overtime last week is that she forgot to seek preapproval—I can't allow that to happen, and Alexa realizes that." It is certainly permissible to require employees to seek approval prior to working overtime. It is not permissible, however, to condition payment of overtime hours worked on an employee's compliance with that requirement. As a general rule, once the overtime is worked, the employer must pay for the time.
  8. "We actually don't need you today. And didn't you tell me your daughter is home from college today? This works out perfectly—why don't you head home and spend the day with her." A growing number of states require employers to pay for "show up" or "reporting" time. This refers to a minimum amount of pay—for instance, 3 or 4 hours at the applicable minimum wage—if an employee scheduled to work longer is sent home after reporting to work for the day. There are exceptions, of course, but these rules can create traps for the unwary.

As these examples help to demonstrate, the FLSA is too thorny a place to entrust compliance to managers’ and supervisors’ intentions alone. Even top-notch, employee-first managers can find themselves trapped in one of the FLSA's various pitfalls, potentially exposing the employer—and possibly even the supervisor herself—to potential liability.

Given these realities, employers are well served by considering the subtle ways in which FLSA issues may arise in their workplace and taking a proactive approach to training supervisors to address those issues. If we can be of assistance in that effort, please do not hesitate to reach out to us.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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