Tag Archives: fair labor standards act

An Underestimated Source of Risk

When directors or CEOs or senior managers think about risk, they generally envision risks associated with the company’s finances, manufacturing, data, supply chain and customers. Human resource risk is often underappreciated, and that can be a serious misjudgment. Recent events, lawsuits and settlements prove this point.

It is true that the risk associated with talent and a lack thereof has risen in the risk hierarchy of most organizations. However, the many other serious risks associated with managing existing talent are often relegated to the bottom of the risk register.

The reasons for this underestimation are varied. Many executives tend to think that: 1) human resource matters are supplemental to the business rather than integral, 2) being an “employer at will” protects the company and enables it to make human resource decisions however it sees fit, 3) a single employee, applicant or retiree is no risk to the organization as a whole (even though a single employee can potentially cause a “class” to be formed under the law). The danger inherent in underestimating HR risk is that it does not get adequately addressed with mitigation plans.

Not all organizations will have the same exposure to risks. Even if they did have the same exposure, some will have more safeguards already in place and warrant a lower risk ranking than some other organization. The discussion that follows is not meant to imply that all HR risks must be prioritized at the top right hand corner of a heat map. It is meant to highlight the potential impact that some HR risks can have on an organization.

Rogue Employee Risk

The rogue employee is one of the most amazing phenomena among human resource risk categories. In financial services, rogue employees have wreaked havoc on otherwise solid and long-standing businesses. Two noteworthy examples are Barings Bank, London’s oldest merchant banks, and UBS, one of Switzerland’s financial giants. Roughly 20 years ago, Nick Leeson, a Barings Bank derivatives trader, gambled away the equivalent of $1. 4 billion of bank money from a secret “error” account. The bank went bust and was bought by ING for a nominal sum. In 2011, UBS announced it had lost $2 billion due to unauthorized trades by a director at its global synthetic equities desk.

And financial institutions are not the only organizations exposed to rogue employee actions that create huge risks and large losses. For instance, GNP, parent of Just BARE and Gold’n Plump, just recalled 55,608 pounds of chicken because of what it called a “product tampering incident” at one of its processing plants.

Here are some of the ways in which such an employee can create risk in just about any industry sector and for which organizations need to develop safeguards as part of their mitigation plans:

  • Abetting a data breach affecting customer/employee personal data
  • Sabotaging mechanical or technological equipment
  • Sabotaging products intended for sale
  • Stealing company property, including intellectual property
  • Mishandling customers/patients on purpose

See also: Risk Management, in Plain English

A fundamental safeguard is thorough vetting during the employment process. Others include: 1) active supervision, 2) automatic, system alerts when authorities are exceeded or other rogue actions are attempted, 3) robust internal audits.

Regulatory Violations Risk

Organizations must deal with employee-related regulation at the local, state and federal level. The number of major federal regulations has grown significantly in the past few decades and now includes such well-known acts as: the Fair Labor Standards Act, Title VII, Age Discrimination Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, Employee Retirement Income Security Act, Family and Medical Leave Act and WARN Act. Each of these has numerous elements that must be understood and complied with, including gray areas that need to be thought through before any action regarding an employee can be decided on.

The Fair Labor Standards Act has been the high-risk area of late. There have been numerous types of suits under this act related to: 1) misclassification of employees into exempt and non-exempt categories, which has implications for overtime pay, 2) incorrect calculation of overtime pay for those due it, 3) mismanagement of paid break time.

A $188 million judgment against Walmart, which is being appealed, had to do with paid versus unpaid break time. Interestingly, this case revolves around the company not living up to the policies in its own handbooks, not around a failure to fulfill specific requirements spelled out in the law. This case is, therefore, illustrative of two important points. First, settlements can be financially significant even for the largest of companies. Second, when dealing with human resource matters, formal programs or policies, which constitute a contractual obligation, have to be considered.

See also: Building a Strong Insurance Risk Culture

Wage and hour suits are likely to keep increasing in 2016 due to the success of recent plaintiffs, new regulations regarding overtime pay and an overall concern among employees that wages are not sufficient or not fair. In an article titled “Why Wage and Hour Litigation Is Skyrocketing,” Lydia DePillis writes, “The number of wage and hour cases filed in federal court rose to 8,871 for the year [ended] Sept. 30, up from 1,935 in 2000.”

Title VII and age discrimination cases have been associated with large dollar losses over the years. Given the many federal, state and local statutes, coupled with a more informed and litigious employee population, organizations can inadvertently step into non-compliance pitfalls rather easily.

Organizations should always follow the laws that apply to them. Risk enters into the equation because there is always the potential that someone in management is unaware or careless or, worse yet, disrespectful of the laws. Thus, the organization is continuously exposed to the risk of violations. Every effort should be made to be compliant, including: 1) having a clear set of core values that guide lawful behavior, 2) educating management and all employees about the laws and how to comply with them, 3) investing in strong compliance processes and 4) making sure violators are dealt with quickly and appropriately.

HR Program Risk

Human resources professionals create and administer many expensive programs such as retirement, benefits, compensation and incentive programs. A large error in terms of budgeting or managing such programs could lead to a sizable financial risk for the organization.

Imagine an actuarial error that creates severe pension underfunding or a poorly managed self-insured medical benefit plan that costs double what benchmarks would suggest. Or, consider a new incentive program that produces the antithesis of the behavior it was intended to promote. The risk can be major, not unlike the size and seriousness of a natural catastrophe or product recall or supply chain debacle.

CEOs need to ensure that HR programs and policies are being handled by expert professionals, whether staff or consultants. At the same time, senior management needs to invest the attention and support necessary to ensure these are well-designed and implemented according to specification.

The comments in this article are neither meant to be all-inclusive nor to be construed as advice.

Boston Furs Sued For $1M For Violations of Fair Labor Standards Act

Citing “knowing, deliberate and intentional” violations of federal wage and hour law, the Labor Department is suing Boston Hides and Furs Ltd. and company officials seeking at least $500,000 in back wages and an equal amount in liquidated damages for allegedly underpaying employees of the Chelsea wholesale animal hide business. See Solis v. Boston Hides & Furs Ltd., Anthony Andreottola, Angelo Andreottola and Antoinetta Andreottola Parisi, CV-1:12-CV-11997-MLW. The suit illustrates the significant liability that companies or their owners or management risk by failing to properly pay workers covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act and meet other Fair Labor Standards Act requirements.

Fair Labor Standards Act Wage & Hour Laws Big Business Responsibility
The Fair Labor Standards Act generally requires that an employer pay each covered employee at least the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour as well as time and one-half their regular rates for every hour they work beyond 40 per week. When the state minimum wage is higher than the federally mandated wage, and employees work more than 40 hours in a week calculated in accordance with applicable state laws, employees paid at the minimum permissible level are entitled to overtime compensation based on the higher state minimum wage. Time credited may be determined differently under state law versus the Fair Labor Standards Act. Employers must ensure proper crediting, recordkeeping and payment in time to meet both applicable requirements.

The Fair Labor Standards Act also requires employers to maintain accurate records of covered employees’ wages, hours and other conditions of employment and prohibits employers from retaliating against employees who exercise their rights under the law. Special rules also may apply to the employment of children or other special populations.

The rules generally establish a legal presumption that a worker performing services is working as a covered employee of the recipient. Unfortunately, many businesses that receive services often unintentionally incur liability because they ill-advisedly misclassify workers as performing services as independent contractors, salaried employees or otherwise exempt by failing to recognize the implications of this presumption. The presumption that a worker is a covered employee generally means that an employer that treats a worker as exempt bears the burden of proving that a worker is not a covered employee and of keeping accurate records to show that it has properly tracked the hours of and paid each covered employee.

The Fair Labor Standards Act provides that employers who violate the law are, as a general rule, liable to employees for back wages and an equal amount in liquidated damages. State wage and hour laws also typically provide for back pay and liquidated damage awards. Attorneys’ fees and other costs often also are recoverable. In certain instances where the violations are knowing, deliberate and intentional, violators often may risk criminal as well as civil liability.

Labor Department Sues Boston Hides and Furs Ltd For Knowing, Deliberate & Willful Fair Labor Standards Act Violations
The Labor Department lawsuit seeks to recover more than $1 million from Boston Hides and Furs Ltd and various company officials for allegedly engaging in knowing and deliberate violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act minimum wage, overtime and retaliation rules.

The Labor Department filed the lawsuit in federal court in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts after a Labor Department Wage & Hour Division investigation found the employer committed willful and repeated violations of the minimum wage, overtime and record-keeping provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act including offering for shipment or sale “hot goods” produced in violation of the law during a period spanning at least three years. The suit also asserts that the company unlawfully retaliated against several workers by firing them after they cooperated with the federal investigation.

In its complaint, the Labor Department claims the investigation found that 14 Boston Hides & Furs employees worked approximately 10 hours per day, six days per week processing hides and furs for shipping to tanneries. These workers were paid a daily cash wage of $50 to $70, which amounted to an hourly pay rate far below the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. The employees also were not paid time and one-half the required state minimum wage of $8 applicable for those hours worked above 40 in a week. Additionally, the defendants failed to keep adequate records of the workers’ employment, work hours and pay rates, and a representative of the defendants falsely told investigators that the company’s payroll records included all employees.

The lawsuit also charges that the defendants ordered employees to hide in a nearby house when Labor Department Wage and Hour Division investigators first arrived at Boston Hides & Furs so they could not be interviewed. Two days after investigators subsequently interviewed the workers, the defendants fired the workers. During their employment, Labor Department claims the workers were threatened and subjected to verbally abusive treatment on an ongoing basis, particularly when they asked about their pay rates.

In addition to back wages and liquidated damages, the Labor Department lawsuit seeks to permanently prohibit the defendants from future Fair Labor Standards Act violations — including a prohibition against shipping any goods handled by workers who were paid in violation of the law — and compensatory and punitive damages for the workers on account of their unlawful firing. The Wage and Hour Division also has assessed $100,000 in civil money penalties against Boston Hides & Furs Ltd. for willful violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Overtime & Other Wage & Hour Enforcement Risks Rising
Employers increasingly risk triggering significant liability by failing to properly characterize, track and pay workers for compensable time in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act or other laws. Unfortunately, many employers often are overly optimistic or otherwise fail to properly understand and apply Fair Labor Standards Act rules for characterizing on-call or other time, classifying workers as exempt versus non-exempt or making other key determinations.

Employers wearing rose tinted glasses when making wage and hour worker classification or compensable time determinations tend to overlook the significance of the burden of proof they can expect to bear should their classification be challenged. These mistakes can be very costly. Employers that fail to properly pay employees under Federal and state wage and hour regulations face substantial risk. In addition to liability for back pay awards, violation of wage and hour mandates carries substantial civil — and in the case of willful violations, even criminal — liability exposure. Civil awards commonly include back pay, punitive damages and attorneys’ fees.

The potential that noncompliant employers will incur these liabilities has risen significantly in recent years.

Under the Obama Administration, Labor Department officials have made it a priority to enforce overtime, recordkeeping, worker classification and other wage and hour law requirements. While all employers face heightened prosecution risks, federal officials specifically are targeting government contractors, health care, technology and certain other industry employers for special scrutiny. The Labor Department is also using smart phone applications, social media and a host of other new tools to educate and recruit workers in its effort to find and prosecute violators. See, e.g. New Employee Smart Phone App New Tool In Labor Department’s Aggressive Wage & Hour Law Enforcement Campaign Against Restaurant & Other Employers.

Meanwhile, private enforcement of these requirements has also soared following the highly-publicized implementation of updated Fair Labor Standards Act regulations regarding the classification of workers during the last Bush Administration. See Texas Landscaper’s $106,000 In Minimum Wage & Overtime Settlement Reminds Employers To Prepare For FLSA Enforcement, Minimum Wage, Overtime Risks Highlighted By Labor Department Strike Force Targeting Residential Care & Group Homes, Review & Strengthen Defensibility of Existing Worker Classification Practices In Light of Rising Congressional & Regulatory Scrutiny, 250 New Investigators, Renewed DOL Enforcement Emphasis Signal Rising Wage & Hour Risks For Employers, and Quest Diagnostics, Inc. To Pay $688,000 In Overtime Backpay.

Employers Should Strengthen Practices For Defensibility
To minimize exposure under the Fair Labor Standards Act, employers should review and document the defensibility of their existing practices for classifying and compensating workers under existing Federal and state wage and hour laws and take appropriate steps to minimize their potential liability under applicable wages and hour laws. Steps advisable as part of this process include, but are not necessarily limited to:

  • Audit of each position currently classified as exempt to assess its continued sustainability and to develop documentation justifying that characterization;
  • Audit characterization of workers obtained from staffing, employee leasing, independent contractor and other arrangements and implement contractual and other oversight arrangements to minimize risks that these relationships could create if workers are recharacterized as employed by the employer receiving these services;
  • Review the characterization of on-call and other time demands placed on employees to confirm that all compensable time is properly identified, tracked, documented, compensated and reported;
  • Review of existing practices for tracking compensable hours and paying non-exempt employees for compliance with applicable regulations and to identify opportunities to minimize costs and liabilities arising out of the regulatory mandates;
  • If the audit raises questions about the appropriateness of the classification of an employee as exempt, self-initiation of appropriate corrective action after consultation with qualified legal counsel;
  • Review of existing documentation and recordkeeping practices for hourly employees;
  • Exploration of available options and alternatives for calculating required wage payments to non-exempt employees; and
  • Reengineering of work rules and other practices to minimize costs and liabilities as appropriate in light of the regulations.

Because of the potentially significant liability exposure, employers generally will want to consult with qualified legal counsel prior to the commencement of their assessment and to conduct the assessment within the scope of attorney-client privilege to minimize risks that might arise out of communications made in the course of conducting this sensitive investigation.

Record $2.3 Million+ Backpay Order

Shows Underpaying Or Violating Other Rules For Employing Foreign Workers Risky Business

Underpaying and failing to meet other H-2A visa program requirements for its employment of temporary foreign agricultural workers was an extremely costly mistake for Yerington, Nevada-based onion grower Peri & Sons.

Under a consent order entered by U.S. Department of Labor Administrative Law Judge Steven Berlin in San Francisco, Peri & Sons must pay a record total of $2,338,700 in back wages to 1,365 workers, plus a $500,000 civil money penalty to the Department of Labor for failing to properly pay foreign agricultural workers working under the H-2A visa program.

The consent order announced by the Labor Department Wage and Hour Division on July 10, 2012 reminds U.S. businesses of the need to meet compliance responsibilities when employing foreign workers and illustrates the significant risks that employers of foreign workers risk by failing to meet minimum wage and hour, overtime and other requirements for the employment of foreign workers.

The record back pay order stems from charges brought by the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division after it determined that Peri & Sons violated the Fair Labor Standards Act and the H-2A visa program requirements by underpaying H-2A employees involved in irrigation, harvesting, packing and shipping of onions sold in grocery stores nationwide.

All of the affected workers came to the U.S. from Mexico under the H-2A temporary agricultural worker visa program. In most cases, their earnings fell below the hourly wage required by the program, as well as below the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour for a brief period of time. Investigators also found that workers were not paid for time spent in mandatory pesticide training or reimbursed for subsistence expenses while traveling to and from the U.S. Additionally, Peri & Sons did not pay the worker’s return transportation costs at the end of the contract period.

The H-2A temporary agricultural worker program permits agricultural employers who expect a shortage of domestic workers to bring nonimmigrant foreign workers to the United States to perform temporary or seasonal agricultural work. The employer must file an application stating that a sufficient number of domestic workers are not available and the employment of these workers will not adversely affect the wages and working conditions of similarly employed workers in the U.S.

Employers using the H-2A program also must meet a number of specific conditions relating to recruitment, wages, housing, meals and transportation. See more on H-2A visa employment rules here.

Reflective of the Obama Administration’s heavy emphasis on the enforcement of wage and hour and other laws protective of workers, the Peri & Sons order shows the potential risks that employers run when violating these rules.

To minimize these exposures, employers of H-2A or other workers employed under special visa programs should carefully manage these programs to ensure their ability to demonstrate compliance with all requirements of the visa program, the Fair Labor Standards Act, and other relevant laws.

These programs should include careful and ongoing due diligence to maintain a current understanding of all applicable requirements for the legal employment of these workers and the establishment of systemized processes and documentation, both to maintain compliance and to preserve evidence necessary to demonstrate this compliance against possible investigations or charges.