Pennsylvania Supreme Court Confirms That Employers Cannot Use Fluctuating Workweek Method of Calculating Overtime

Q: I heard that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently issued a major ruling regarding overtime pay. What do I need to know?

A: On November 20, 2019, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court rejected the application of the fluctuating workweek method (“FWW Method”) of calculating overtime under the Pennsylvania Minimum Wage Act (PMWA) and its corresponding regulations. As a result, Pennsylvania employers must pay salaried, non-exempt employees an additional one and a half times the employees’ regular rate of pay for every hour worked over 40 in a workweek. See Chevalier v. Gen. Nutrition Ctrs., Inc., Nos. 22 WAP 2018, 23 WAP 2018 (Pa. Nov. 20, 2019).

Background

In general, non-exempt employees must be paid overtime at one and a half times their regular rate of pay for every hour worked in excess of 40 in a workweek. However, regulations implementing the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) specifically permit employers to pay salaried, non-exempt employees using the FWW Method when their number of hours worked fluctuate from week to week. See 29 C.F.R. § 778.114. Under the FWW Method, an employer and employee can agree that the employee will receive a fixed weekly salary as straight time pay, regardless of the number of hours worked in a workweek. In addition to this base straight time salary, the employee is entitled to overtime pay at a rate of one-half the employee’s regular rate of pay. The overtime calculation of one-half the regular rate (rather than one and a half times the regular rate) is based on the principle that the employee’s underlying salary already covers all straight time due for the actual hours worked.

Unlike the regulations implementing the FLSA, however, nothing in the PMWA or its implementing regulations specifically authorizes the use of the FWW Method. In recent years, three different Pennsylvania federal courts rejected the FWW Method under state law, instead holding that employers must pay Pennsylvania employees overtime equal to one and one-half times the employee’s regular rate of pay. Pennsylvania’s highest court had not weighed in on the issue—until now.

The Case

Plaintiff represented a class of non-exempt store managers who were paid a fixed weekly salary plus commissions, regardless of the number of hours they worked in a week. To determine overtime compensation, the defendant utilized the FWW Method. The defendant calculated each manager’s “regular rate” by dividing the manager’s fixed weekly salary by the actual number of hours worked, and then paid overtime at one-half times that regular rate for all hours worked in excess of 40. Plaintiff argued that the FWW Method was not permitted by Pennsylvania law and that she should have been paid one and a half times her regular rate for all hours worked in excess of 40.

The Court held that the FWW Method is not permissible under state law and that salaried non-exempt employees must be paid one and a half times their regular rate for all overtime hours. In coming to its conclusion, the Court cited to the PMWA and its implementing regulations which explicitly provide that each “employee shall be paid for overtime not less than 1-1/2 times the employee’s regular rate of pay for all hours in excess of 40 hours in a workweek.” The Court also found that the promulgation of certain FLSA regulations by the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry regarding other methods of overtime calculation, combined with the Department’s failure to adopt the FWW Method regulation, were strong evidence that the FWW Method is not a permissible means of calculating overtime under Pennsylvania law.

Going Forward

The FWW Method of paying overtime in Pennsylvania has been of questionable legality for some time. The latest Supreme Court decision confirms that employers should not be utilizing the FWW Method of compensation in Pennsylvania—despite the fact that it remains permissible under federal law.

Coincidentally, on the same day that the Supreme Court issued its decision, the Pennsylvania Senate passed a bill amending the PMWA that would, among other things, insert a provision into the Act providing that the wage and hour requirements in the PMWA “shall be applied in accordance with the minimum wage and overtime provisions of the” FLSA and its regulations, “except when a higher standard is specified” under state law.

Since the PMWA does not specifically address the FWW Method, this piece of legislation may ultimately have the effect of making the FWW Method a viable option for Pennsylvania employers to use when calculating overtime pay for their non-exempt salaried employees. While we expect the legislation to ultimately pass the Pennsylvania House and be signed by the Governor, until that happens, Pennsylvania employers should heed the Chevalier decision and not utilize the FWW Method of calculating and paying overtime.

Lee Tankle and Jonathan Gilman

 

New Pennsylvania Medical Marijuana Lawsuit May Someday Provide Guidance to Employers

Q: Are there any new cases involving Pennsylvania’s Medical Marijuana Act in the context of employment?

A: Given that state-sanctioned use of medical marijuana is relatively new, there are few cases interpreting Pennsylvania’s medical marijuana law with regard to employment. This is why a recently filed Pennsylvania lawsuit could have a far-reaching impact on employers.

On October 10, 2019, Derek Gsell of Moon Township, Pennsylvania filed a lawsuit against a Pennsylvania electric company (the “Company”) in the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, docketed as No. GD-19-014418. Mr. Gsell alleges that the Company improperly rescinded a job offer because he tested positive for THC (the active ingredient in marijuana) in a pre-employment drug test. As he informed the Company, Mr. Gsell possesses a Pennsylvania medical marijuana card, which allows him to legally purchase and use marijuana for medical purposes.

According to the complaint, the Company offered Mr. Gsell employment in August 2019; however, the offer was “contingent upon successful completion of a criminal background check, reference check, and pre-employment drug screen.” Mr. Gsell underwent a pre-employment hair follicle drug test and he was informed that he had “failed” the test due to the detection of THC. The complaint states that written correspondence from the Company informed Mr. Gsell that the job offer was rescinded and the position was “no longer available due to your positive drug screen results.”

In his complaint, Mr. Gsell claims that the Company acted with “malice or reckless indifference” to his rights under Pennsylvania’s Medical Marijuana Act (“PMMA”), which established the state’s medical marijuana program in 2016. Mr. Gsell alleges that his job offer was rescinded solely because he was certified to use medical marijuana, noting that he did not seek to use medical marijuana on the Company’s property or to be under the influence of marijuana while at work.

The PMMA permits the use and possession of medical marijuana in authorized forms by patients with a practitioner’s certificate who suffer from a serious medical condition. Possession is lawful for patients and caregivers who have a valid identification card. The Act provides protections for employees certified to use medical marijuana and in particular, it prohibits employers from discriminating or taking an adverse action against an employee “solely on the basis of the employee’s status as an individual who is certified to use medical marijuana.”

Given the limited issues presented in Mr. Gsell’s one-count complaint, this lawsuit will likely be a good test case for enforcing an employee’s (or a prospective employee’s) rights under the PMMA. The Company has not yet filed a response to the complaint.

We will continue to monitor the case’s progress.  In the meantime, if one of your employees or a prospective employee is a user of medical marijuana and you have concerns about your company’s obligations and/or responsibilities with regard to such use, contact any member of the Pepper Hamilton Labor & Employment team for guidance and advice.

— Leigh McMonigle

Anxiety and the ADA

Q: An employee in my company has requested intermittent leave as an accommodation for what he claims is a debilitating “anxiety,” but he has no job performance issues and seems fine to me. Are we required to provide a reasonable accommodation under the ADA for anxiety?

A: The question of whether an employee’s anxiety constitutes a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) is rather tricky for employers. Most people experience some level of anxiety on the job and in every day life, but in the absence of clear behavioral indicators, it may be difficult for employers to assess whether an employee’s anxiety rises to the level of a disability as defined by the ADA. However, as a recent decision from a federal court in the Middle District of Tennessee demonstrates, to enjoy the protections of the ADA, your employee’s accommodation request must be grounded on something more than his generalized claim that he has a “debilitating” anxiety disorder.

In EEOC v. West Meade Place LLP, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) alleged that the defendant, a nursing home, failed to provide a reasonable accommodation to an employee who suffered from an anxiety disorder, and then fired her because of her disability.

The ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability with respect to hiring, compensation, discharge, and other terms, conditions, and privileges of employment. In order to establish a prima facie case of discrimination under the ADA, a plaintiff must show that (1) she is disabled, (2) she is otherwise qualified to perform the essential functions of a position, with or without accommodation, and (3) she suffered an adverse employment action because of her disability.

In West Meade Place, the employer argued that the plaintiff could not establish the first element of the legal standard—that she was disabled. Under the ADA, a “disability” is defined in three ways: (1) a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one’s ability one or more of the individual’s major life activities of an individual; (2) a record of such an impairment; or (3) being regarded as having such an impairment. Reviewing the evidence in light of this definition, the court found that the plaintiff was unable to satisfy her prima facie burden and granted summary judgment to the defendant.

First, the plaintiff could not show that her condition substantially limited her ability to perform her job. The EEOC’s plan to rely on testimony from the employee’s physician on this point backfired during the physician’s deposition. After stating on an FMLA form that the employee could not work during her anxiety “flare-ups,” the physician admitted that, in lieu of a medical opinion, she signed the FMLA form simply because the employee asked her to do it. Given the scant medical evidence to support plaintiff’s medical condition, the court rejected the agency’s argument that one or more of the employee’s major life activities were “substantially limited” by her anxiety.

In addition, the plaintiff’s contradictory testimony undermined the EEOC’s position that the employee had a record of impairment. On the forms she completed at the outset of her employment, she indicated that she had used an anti-anxiety medication and affirmed that she had issues with anxiety. However, she also wrote on the forms that she had never been treated for anxiety. As such, the court found the onboarding documents failed to establish that the plaintiff had a history of anxiety of such severity that it substantially limited on or more of her major life activities.

Likewise, the EEOC’s argument that the plaintiff was regarded as having an impairment by the employer failed. The court explained that, rather than simply alleging that the employer was aware of her symptoms, the plaintiff must instead show that the employer regarded her as “impaired” within the meaning of the ADA. An employee’s statement to management that she suffered from anxiety may not be enough. As the nurse manager explained when asked whether she was aware that the plaintiff had a disability, just because an employee “said she had anxiety, that doesn’t make it a disability. I have anxiety. It’s not a disability.”

Given that the plaintiff could not meet the ADA’s definition of “disabled,” she failed to establish a prima facie case of either on either her discrimination or failure-to-accommodate claims.

By nature, anxiety is somewhat difficult to assess, and thus employers must take care when responding to an employee’s request for an accommodation for an anxiety condition. In the absence of supporting evidence, an employee’s bald assertion that he or she suffers from an anxiety disorder probably is not enough to meet the ADA standard. Thus, an employer should carefully analyze any documents provided by the employee’s health care provider to determine whether the diagnosis indicates that the anxiety amounts to a “mental impairment” as contemplated by the statute. Also, employers should conduct a thorough review of the employee’s file to ascertain whether the employee identified the medical condition at the outset of employment or afterwards, thereby putting the employer on notice. In addition, employers should take a holistic view of the employee’s overall engagement with the company to determine whether the company regarded the employee as disabled. As always, to mitigate the risk of liability, employers should thoroughly review the facts and available documents with an attorney who has experience in analyzing ADA issues, prior to denying an employee’s request for an ADA accommodation.

Rogers Stevens

Deadline Looms for Employers to Provide CCPA Notices

Q.  What are my company’s obligations under the California Consumer Privacy Act?

A. The California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) will take effect on January 1, 2020. On or before that date, businesses that employ California residents, retain California residents as independent contractors, or receive job applications from California residents must provide those individuals with notices detailing (1) the categories of personal information that the employer collects about them and (2) the purposes for which the personal information will be used. The CCPA requires that businesses provide these notices “at or before the point of collection” of personal information.

“Personal information” is defined broadly in the CCPA and includes items such as Social Security numbers, bank account numbers, education and employment history, characteristics of a protected classification under California or federal law (such as race, religion, gender, disability and age), biometric information, medical and health insurance information, and certain metadata, such as device IP address. In the employment/independent contractor context, businesses collect personal information for purposes such as onboarding, conducting background checks, managing the employment/contractor relationship (including payment of wages/fees, time records, direct deposit authorization, etc.), and preparing legally required records (including I-9 and EEO-1 forms). Businesses should consider incorporating the CCPA notice in the following documents and locations, as well as posting it where other notices are posted:

  • employee handbooks
  • offer letters
  • other new hire paperwork
  • employment agreements
  • restrictive covenant agreements
  • online job application portals.

In addition to requiring notice to individuals, the CCPA’s notice requirement extends to “personal information” related to households, which would include medical and health insurance information about an employee’s beneficiaries. Businesses should assess how to comply with their obligation to notify households in the absence of specific guidance, which hopefully will be forthcoming.

Although many employment-related requirements in the original CCPA were suspended until January 1, 2021 by the CCPA amendments, the notice requirement and the private right of action in the event of a data breach are still in effect. Consequently, businesses should properly secure employee, applicant and independent contractor-related personal information to mitigate risk of liability, and develop and distribute mandated notices at or before all points where employee, job applicant and independent contractor personal information is collected. Businesses also should consider what operational steps will be necessary to afford California resident employees, applicants and independent contractors full CCPA rights as of January 1, 2021. Pepper Hamilton LLP can assist businesses in complying with the CCPA.

Sharon R. Klein, Susan K. Lessack, Alex C. Nisenbaum and Jeffrey M. Goldman

Ninth Circuit Finds Franchisors Not Joint Employers of Employees of Franchisees Absent Direct Control Over Wages, Hours and Working Conditions

Q.  As a franchisor, could I potentially be held liable for the wage and hour violations committed by franchisees of my organization against their employees?

A.  On October 1, 2019, a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that McDonald’s Corporation was not liable as a joint employer for any alleged wage and hour violations committed against its California franchisee’s employees because McDonald’s did not exercise enough control over them.

In Salazar v. McDonald’s Corp., a class of approximately 1,400 restaurant workers at McDonald’s franchises in California alleged that they were denied overtime premiums, meal and rest breaks, and other benefits in violation of the California Labor Code. They argued that McDonald’s and itsCalifornia franchisee were joint employers such that McDonald’s should be held liable for the violations. In support of their joint employer theory, the restaurant workers conveyed that McDonald’s required the franchisees to use specific computer systems for timekeeping which allegedly caused them to miss out on receiving overtime pay, and to send their managers to McDonald’s-sponsored trainings, which included topics on wage and hour policies. On the other hand, the facts also showed that the California franchisees were solely responsible for setting wages, interviewing, hiring, firing, supervising, and paying all of its employees.

The Ninth Circuit ultimately determined McDonald’s was not a joint employer of its franchisees’ workers for purposes of wage and hour liability. Its decision narrowly focused on the California Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Martinez v. Combs, which addressed three alternative definitions for determining whether an employment relationship exists: (1) exercising “control” over employees’ wages, hours, or working conditions; (2) “suffering or permitting” employees to work; or (3) creating a common law employment relationship. Under the “control” definition, the Ninth Circuit held that McDonald’s did not have the necessary control over “day-to-day aspects” of working conditions, such as hiring, direction, supervision, or discharge; rather, McDonald’s only had direct control over quality, such as operational branding. It also found that McDonald’s did not fall under the “suffer or permit” definition, which “pertains to responsibility for the fact of employment itself. The question under California law is whether McDonald’s is one of Plaintiffs’ employers, not whether McDonald’s caused Plaintiffs’ employer to violate wage-and-hour laws by giving the employer bad tools or bad advice.” For similar reasons, the Ninth Circuit panel held that McDonald’s could not be considered an employer under California common law because its quality control and maintenance of brand standards was not evidence that it had the requisite level of control over the workers’ employment to be deemed a joint employer.

The Ninth Circuit also rejected plaintiffs’ novel legal argument that McDonald’s was liable for wage and hour violations under an ostensible-agency theory, as it noted the term “agent” under state law only applies to an employer that exercises control over the wages, hours, or working conditions of workers, which was not the case here. In addition, the Court ruled that the workers’ negligence claim based on McDonald’s alleged failure to prevent the violations failed, as the claim was preempted by California’s wage and hour statutes and plaintiffs could prove neither the damages nor the duty elements required under a negligence theory of liability.

The Ninth Circuit ruling is significant for franchisors and other affiliated companies of employers, as it clarifies that a joint employment relationship under California wage and hour laws primarily depends on whether the company exerts direct control over day-to-day working conditions, such as hiring, direction, supervision, and discharge. The decision was issued only one week after a California appellate court ruled that Shell Oil Products US was not a joint employer for purposes of California wage and hour violations based on the same test employed by the Ninth Circuit. In April 2019, the U.S. Department of Labor proposed the enactment of a similar control test for determining joint employer liability under the Fair Labor Standards Act. Nonetheless, companies are advised to consult with experienced labor and employment attorneys in order to stay abreast of the evolving tests used to determine joint employment liability.

Jonathan Gilman