Tag Archives: labor department

EEOC Suit Against CVS Raises Concerns

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has challenged the legality of provisions commonly included in severance, separation or other settlements with employees being terminated. These provisions state that settlement benefits are to be paid only if the employee doesn’t file charges or otherwise communicate with the EEOC.

Employers planning to use such provisions should note a lawsuit filed by the EEOC against the nation’s largest integrated provider of prescriptions and health-related services, CVS Pharmacy.

In Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. CVS Pharmacy, Inc., CA no. 14-cv-863 (N.D. Ill., 2014), the EEOC charges that CVS unlawfully violated employees’ right to communicate with the EEOC and file discrimination charges. The EEOC says CVS committed the violation through an overly broad severance agreement that included five pages of small print.

The lawsuit claims CVS violated Section 707 of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employer conduct that constitutes resistance to the rights protected by Title VII.

The lawsuit also is notable because it is not filed in response to an investigation of a discrimination charge. According to the EEOC, Section 707 permits the agency to seek immediate relief without the same pre-suit administrative process that is required under Section 706 of Title VII, and does not require that the agency’s suit arise from a discrimination charge.

“Charges and communication with employees play a critical role in the EEOC’s enforcement process because they inform the agency of employer practices that might violate the law,” according to the EEOC attorney leading the litigation, John C. Hendrickson. “For this reason, the right to communicate with the EEOC is a right that is protected by federal law. When an employer attempts to limit that communication, the employer effectively is attempting to buy employee silence about potential violations of the law. Put simply, that is a deal that employers cannot lawfully make.”

EEOC District Director Jack Rowe added, “The agency’s most recent strategic enforcement plan identified ‘preserving access to the legal system’ as one of the EEOC’s six strategic enforcement priorities. That was no accident. The importance of employees’ ability to participate in the agency’s process, free from fear of adverse consequences, cannot be overstated. It is always difficult for an employee to report employer discrimination to federal law enforcement officials. Anything that makes that communication harder increases the risk that discrimination will go unremedied.”

The litigation showcases the need for employers to use caution when attempting to prevent employees from reporting to or cooperating with regulators investigating suspected discrimination or other legal violations. The EEOC’s challenge in the CVS litigation is not unique. Challenges have arisen under a wide range of federal and state laws.

The Labor Department Wage and Hour Division has rules that say employers will receive no shield from investigations by the agency or from enforcement of wage and hour laws on settlements with terminated employees that didn’t involve the division. The Justice Department and other government enforcement agencies often view confidentiality provisions as prohibited obstruction or retaliation. In addition, government investigators often view the existence of gag rules as evidence that an organization does not maintain the required culture of compliance.

The CVS litigation also cautions businesses against taking for granted the appropriateness of their current agreements with employees. The EEOC challenge is just one of several developments that can affect the design and use of severance, separation and other settlement agreements with employees intended to resolve employment discrimination claims. While many employers may assume they can safely use agreements used in connection with previous terminations, the CVS litigation highlights the potential advisability of seeking the advice of qualified legal counsel, even if the employer benefited from the advice of legal counsel in drafting the previous agreement.

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.

Current Challenges To Pre-Hire Screening Procedures

The consent decree between the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Program and Leprino Foods Inc., resolving charges of systemic hiring discrimination at the company’s Lemoore West facility and signed recently by a Labor Department administrative law, highlights the growing aggressiveness of the Labor Department in challenging employment screening practices.

The Leprino Foods case highlights the advisability of businesses judiciously determining and documenting in advance the valid business justification for employment screening procedures such as pre-employment tests and background screening and taking other steps to position themselves to defend their procedures for credentialing workers against possible employment discrimination claims.

Denver-based and one of the largest producers of mozzarella cheese in the world Leprino Foods has received contracts totaling nearly $50 million from U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Services Agency to provide mozzarella and other dairy products to the federal government since 2005.

The Leprino Foods consent decree settles OFCCP’s allegations that Leprino Foods’ use of a pre-employment test called WorkKeys to select hires for on-call laborer positions illegally discriminated against discrimination against African-American job applicants and applicants of Asian and Hispanic descent.

OFCCP charged Leprino Foods violated Executive Order 11246, which prohibits federal contractors and subcontractors from discriminating on the bases of race, color, religion, sex and national origin in their employment practices. The agency made its findings after a scheduled compliance review in which OFCCP investigators conducted interviews, analyzed company data and reviewed documents provided by the company. Through this review, OFCCP discovered that the administration of the WorkKeys exam had an adverse impact on minority job applicants for these specific positions. The agency also found that the exam was not job-related, as it tested applicants’ skills in mathematics, locating information and observation — skills that the OFCCP felt were not critical to the entry-level tasks performed by on-call laborers, such as inspecting products, monitoring equipment and maintaining sanitation at the facility.

Under the terms of the consent decree, Leprino will pay $550,000 in back wages, interest and benefits to 253 minority workers who were rejected for on-call laborer positions between January 2005 and October 2006 because they failed the WorkKeys exam. Additionally, the company has agreed to discontinue use of the test for this purpose, hire at least 13 of the original class members, undertake extensive self-monitoring measures and immediately correct any discriminatory practices.

The settlement reminds business leaders of the growing aggressiveness by the Obama Administration in challenging a broad range of pre-hire screening procedures such as pre-employment skills and other testing, background checks or the like. In the face of these enforcement activities, businesses desiring to use these or other screening procedures should take steps to position themselves to defend against likely challenges and scrutiny. As part of these efforts, businesses should exercise care to conduct and retain carefully conducted and well documented analysis of the legitimate business justification for their use of tests, background checks or other credentialing procedures. This analysis and documentation should be conducted prior to the implementation and use of these procedures to minimize the likelihood that the “after acquired evidence rule” or other similar arguments might be used to undermine the admissibility and effectiveness of these business justification arguments. Businesses also should implement procedures to monitor for potential evidence of adverse impact or other improper bias against candidates in protected employment classes by the tests themselves or in their administration and implement well-documented processes to control for such bias.

ERISA Bonding Reminder

Employers And Plan Fiduciaries Reminded To Confirm Credentials And Bonding For Internal Staff, Plan Fidiciaries And Vendors Dealing With Benefits

Businesses sponsoring employee benefit plans — along with officers, directors, employees and others acting as fiduciaries with respect to these employee benefit plans — should take steps to confirm that all of the appropriate fiduciary bonds required by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, as amended (ERISA) are in place. They should also confirm that all employee benefit plans sponsored are appropriately covered, and that all individuals serving in key positions requiring bonding are covered and appropriately qualified to serve in that capacity under ERISA and the terms of the bond.

Adequate attention to these concerns not only is a required component of ERISA's fiduciary compliance, it also may provide invaluable protection if a dishonesty or other fiduciary breach results in a loss or other exposure.

ERISA generally requires that every employee benefit plan fiduciary, as well as every other person who handles funds or other property of a plan (a “plan official”), be bonded if they have some discretionary control over a plan or the assets of a related trust. While some narrow exceptions are available to this bonding requirement, these exceptions are very narrow and apply only if certain narrow criteria are met.

Plan sponsors and other plan fiduciaries should take steps to ensure that all of the bonding requirements applicable to their employee benefit plans are met at least annually. Monitoring these compliance obligations is important not only for the 401(k) and other retirement plans typically associated with these requirements, but also for self-insured medical and other ERISA-covered employee benefit plans.

This process of credentialing persons involved with the plan and auditing bonding generally should begin with adopting a written policy requiring bonding and verification of credentials and that appropriate bonds are in place for all internal personnel and outside service providers.

Steps should be taken to ensure that the required fiduciary bonds are secured in sufficient amounts and scope to meet ERISA’s requirements. In addition to confirming the existence and amount of the fiduciary bonds, plan sponsors and fiduciaries should confirm that each employee plan for which bonding is required is listed in the bond and that the bond covers all individuals or organizations that ERISA requires to be bonded.

For this purpose, the review should verify the sufficiency and adequacy of bonding in effect for both internal personnel as well as outside service providers. In the case of internal personnel, the adequacy of the bonds should be reviewed annually to ensure that bond amounts are appropriate.

Unless a service provider provides a legal opinion that adequately demonstrates that an ERISA bonding exemption applies, plan sponsors and fiduciaries also should require that third party service providers provide proof of appropriate bonding as well as to contract to be bonded in accordance with ERISA and other applicable laws, to provide proof of their bonded status or documentation of their exemption, and to provide notice of events that could impact on their bonded status.

When verifying the bonding requirements, it also is a good idea to conduct a criminal background check and other prudent investigation to reconfirm the credentials and suitability of individuals and organizations serving in fiduciary positions or otherwise acting in a capacity covered by ERISA’s bonding requirements.

ERISA generally prohibits individuals convicted of certain crimes from serving, and prohibits plan sponsors, fiduciaries or others from knowingly hiring, retaining, employing or otherwise allowing these convicted individuals during or for the 13-year period after the later of the conviction or the end of imprisonment, to serve as:

  • An administrator, fiduciary, officer, trustee, custodian, counsel, agent, employee, or
    representative in any capacity of any employee benefit plan;
  • A consultant or adviser to an employee benefit plan, including but not limited to any entity whose activities are in whole or substantial part devoted to providing goods or services to any employee benefit plan; or,
  • In any capacity that involves decision-making authority or custody or control of the moneys, funds, assets, or property of any employee benefit plan.

Because ERISA’s bonding and prudent selection of fiduciaries and service provider requirements, breach of its provisions carries all the usual exposures of a fiduciary breach.

Bonding exposures can arise in audit or as part of a broader fiduciary investigation. The likelihood of discovery in an audit or investigation by the Labor Department in the course of an audit is high, as review of bonding is a standard part of audits and investigations. The Employee Benefit Security Administration (EBSA) Enforcement Manual specifies in connection with the conduct of a fiduciary investigation or audit:

… the Investigator/Auditor will ordinarily determine whether a plan is in compliance with the bonding, reporting, and disclosure provisions of ERISA by completing an ERISA Bonding Checklist … These checklists will be filled out in fiduciary cases and retained in the RO workpaper case file unless violations are uncovered, developed, and reported in the ROI.

In the best case scenario, where the bonding noncompliance comes to light in the course of an EBSA audit where no plan loss resulted, the responsible fiduciary generally runs at least a risk that EBSA will assess the 20 percent fiduciary penalty under ERISA Section 502(l).

If the bonding lapse comes to light in connection with a fiduciary breach that resulted in damages to the plan by a fiduciary or other party, the bonding insufficiency may be itself a breach of fiduciary duty resulting in injury to the plan and where this breach left the plan unprotected against an act of dishonesty or fiduciary breach by an individual who should have been bonded, may spread liability for the wrongful acts of the wrongdoer to a plan sponsor, member of management or other party serving in a fiduciary role who otherwise would not be liable but for deficiencies in the bonding or other credentialing responsibilities.

Under ERISA Section 409, a fiduciary generally is personally liable for injuries to the plan arising from his own breach (such as failure to properly bond) or resulting from breaches of another co-fiduciary who he knew or should have known through prudent exercise of his responsibilities.

Of course, in the most serious cases, such as embezzlement or other criminal acts by a fiduciary of ERISA, the consequences can be quite dire. Knowing or intentional violation of ERISA’s fiduciary responsibilities exposes the guilty fiduciary to fines of up to $10,000, imprisonment for not more than five years, or both. Even where the violation is not knowing or willful, however, allowing disqualified persons to serve in fiduciary roles can have serious consequences such as exposure to Department of Labor penalties and personal liability for breach of fiduciary duty for damages resulting to the plan if it is established that the retention of services was an imprudent engagement of such an individual that caused the loss.

When conducting such a background check, care should be taken to comply with the applicable notice and consent requirements for conducting third party conducted background checks under the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) and otherwise applicable law. As such background investigations generally would be conducted in such a manner as to qualify as a credit check for purposes of the FCRA, conducting background checks in a manner that violates the FCRA credit check requirements itself can be a source of significant liability.