Articles Posted in Wage and Hour Laws

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Minimum wage workers in Maine will receive a pay increase to $10 per hour starting on January 1. This is a scheduled increase mandated by minimum-wage legislation enacted after a voter referendum in 2016. The minimum wage will continue to increase to $12 per hour by 2020 and then will increase yearly after 2020 to keep pace with inflation. As we previously reported, there is an exception to the minimum wage increase for tipped workers and some lawmakers want to make further changes to the law.

Maine’s minimum wage is in the middle of the pack both nationally and in New England. New Hampshire’s minimum wage is pegged to the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour while Massachusetts’ minimum wage is $11 per hour.

Unemployment is relatively low nationally and in Maine.  That low unemployment rate also creates some upward pressure on wages. With fewer workers to choose from, employers have to offer higher wages to attract applicants. This is a particular issue in the hospitality industry in southern Maine. “I think that for most of the industry, the labor shortage is so acute that people are paying above minimum wage anyhow,” said Steve Hewins, president and CEO of the Maine Restaurant Association and Maine Innkeepers Association.

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After Maine recently passed an increase to the minimum wage, many Maine restaurant workers who depend on tips voiced serious concerns. They believed that the increased minimum wage would actually cause them to make less money. They feared that restaurant owners would raise prices and cut workers’ shifts. Some said that customers had begun to tip less because the customers assumed that the increased minimum wage made tips less important to servers. Due to these concerns, the Maine legislature recently passed a bill that reversed the increase in minimum wage that employers must pay to tipped workers and the Governor has signed that bill.

If the minimum wage increase for tipped workers had not been reversed, employers of tipped workers would have went from paying tipped workers a minimum wage of $3.75/hour in 2016 to $12/hour by 2024.  Employers of tipped workers will have to pay workers a minimum of $5/hour this year but in future years they will only have to pay them half of the minimum wage that non-tipped workers must receive.  What will not change is that if tips do not result in a tipped worker making at least the same minimum wage as a non-tipped worker, the employer of the tipped worker will have to make up the difference.

One of the Maine restaurant workers who organized the movement to reverse the rise in the minimum wage for tipped workers was Jason Buckwalter. He is now saying that he wants to take this movement to other places in the country where the minimum wages of tipped workers may be raised or have already been raised. But those who advocate for a higher minimum wage for restaurant workers say that they disagree with Buckwalter and others in his camp. “We do not believe what we see in Maine is representative of the majority of workers,” said Dave Palmer, the managing director of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, a national group of low-wage restaurant workers.

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In an important decision for transportation workers, the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals has held that a trucking company cannot use the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) to force its truckers to bring their claims against the company in arbitration. As we have previously discussed, companies often force workers to sign arbitration agreements because the arbitration system is stacked in those companies’ favor. When workers forced to sign one of these arbitration agreements file their claims in court, instead of in arbitration, companies often rely on the FAA to get the cases thrown out of court and into arbitration. But in this case, the First Circuit held that the FAA did not apply.

This case involved a class of truck drivers who sued New Prime, Inc. for minimum wage violations. New Prime allegedly engaged in a practice of encouraging truck drivers to become “independent contractors” instead of employees of the company. One of the issues in this case is whether the truck drivers were, actually, independent contractors or were employees. If they were employees, the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) would entitle them to minimum wage; but if they were independent contractors, FLSA would not cover them.

The FAA does not apply in cases involving transportation workers and, thus, companies cannot use the FAA to force cases brought by transportation workers into arbitration. New Prime argued that the exemption for transportation workers only applies to cases involving employees and does not apply to cases involving independent contractors. New Prime also argued that an arbitrator, instead of a court, should decide whether the FAA applied to this case. The First Circuited rejected both of New Prime’s arguments.

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There are going to be changes to Maine’s wage and hour laws in 2017. Starting on January 7, 2017, the minimum wage in Maine will rise to $9 per hour and it will rise each year until it reaches $12 per hour in 2020. (The wages for tipped employees are also going up and will continue to rise until 2020.) The minimum salary necessary for employees to be exempt from overtime pay requirements is also going to rise to $519.24 per week and will also continue to rise until 2020.  Your employer is required to display new posters in the workplace that reflect these changes.

To avoid paying these increased wages, more employers may be tempted to game the system by, for instance, misclassifying employees as exempt salaried employees or independent contractors. By misclassifying employees as exempt, employers can avoid paying them overtime; and by misclassifying them as independent contractors, employers can avoid paying them overtime pay and minimum wage. Misclassification is a diplomatic term for “wage theft.” Gaming the system this way enables employers to pocket money that employees have earned and should legally receive.

To protect yourself, don’t just accept your employer’s classification at face value. Just because you receive a salary, instead of hourly pay, does not mean that you are exempt from overtime pay when you work over 40 hours per week. Similarly, just because your employer says that you are an independent contractor does not mean you are.

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Do you have a job where your work schedule unpredictably changes every week or every other week? If so, a new study shows that you’re more likely than someone with a more predictable work schedule to suffer adverse health effects. The researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and UC Berkeley who conducted the study found that workers with unpredictable schedules exhibit higher levels of stress, poorer health, and worse sleeping habits than workers with more predictable schedules.

Of course, this makes total sense. If you don’t know what your work schedule is going to be next week, you obviously experience a lot of stress in planning your life. You might have to make last minute childcare arrangements. You might have to put off doctor appointments because you don’t know if you’ll have to work at the time of your appointment. You also can’t get a second job because you don’t know if the schedules at the two jobs are going to conflict. All of these complications, and more, obviously cause a lot of stress.

Some states and cities have laws that require employers to give more notice when they change workers’ schedules. There was a bill in Maine last year that would have added more predictably to some workers’ schedules. However, that bill did not pass. Employers complained that a requirement to provide more notice on work schedules would be too burdensome; but the costs associated with that burden could be recouped if workers were healthier and more productive due to more predictable work schedules.

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Thousands of current and former employees of the restaurant chain Chipotle have reportedly returned paperwork indicating their intent to join a lawsuit against Chipotle for wage theft.  The paperwork went out to current and former Chipotle employees in April and indicated that employees who worked “off the clock” for Chipotle could join the lawsuit.  Since then, nearly 10,000 current and former employees have joined the lawsuit.

The lawsuit alleges that Chipotle employees who worked the closing shift were automatically and routinely clocked out before they finished working.  Some managers even allegedly asked Chipotle employees to work after they were clocked out.  This is a classic form of wage theft and, given the number of workers who have opted-in to the lawsuit so far, it may have been a pervasive practice at Chipotle.

Unfortunately, many employers engage in wage theft in order to keep labor costs low.  Wage theft can take many forms such as requiring employees to work off the clock, refusing to pay time-and-a-half for all overtime worked, and improperly paying the same weekly salary to non-exempt employees even when they work overtime.  These practices are called wage theft because they involve the employers keeping wages that employees earned and are legally entitled to receive.

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The New York Attorney General recently filed a lawsuit against Domino’s Pizza, Inc. for wage theft.  This lawsuit is noteworthy for many reasons but perhaps the most noteworthy is that Domino’s argues that it does not employ the workers whose wages were allegedly stolen.  Instead, Domino’s claims that its franchise operators, who contract with Dominos, employ the workers.  The New York Attorney General maintains that Domino’s and the franchises jointly employed the workers and, thus, Domino’s is responsible for the wage theft.

One of the reasons corporations like Domino’s use a franchise business model is to limit the liability of the corporation.  This is perfectly legitimate if done correctly but the New York Attorney General argues that Domino’s exercised so much control over its franchises’ employees that Domino’s was also the employer of the workers and, as such, it is responsible for the alleged wage theft.  A statement from the New York Attorney General’s Office claims that their “investigation found, [Domino’s] played a role in the hiring, firing, and discipline of workers; pushed an anti-union position on franchisees; and closely monitored employee job performance through onsite and electronic reviews.”

“At some point, a company has to take responsibility for its actions and for its workers’ well-being. We’ve found rampant wage violations at Domino’s franchise stores. And, as our suit alleges, we’ve discovered that Domino’s headquarters was intensely involved in store operations, and even caused many of these violations,” said the New York Attorney General.  “Under these circumstances, New York law – as well as basic human decency – holds Domino’s responsible for the alleged mistreatment of the workers who make and deliver the company’s pizza. Domino’s can, and must, fix this problem.”

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The U.S. Department of Labor recently enacted new regulations that will increase the number of workers eligible to receive overtime pay when they work more than 40 hours in a week.  Under the new regulations, among other changes, employees that earn less than $47,476 per year must receive overtime pay—under the old regulations that threshold was $23,660.  Some opponents to this change are arguing that employers will decrease flexible work options in response to the overtime expansion.  Supporters of the change argue that there is no reason why employers would need to decrease flexible work options.  What is perhaps more interesting than this debate, however, is whether “flexible work options” are all their cracked up to be for many workers.

Opponents of the new regulations believe that employers will now need to keep better track of the amount of time that their previously overtime-exempt (now non-exempt) employees work.  This is because employers will have to pay more of their employees overtime pay if the employees work more than 40 hours in a week.  Thus, the argument goes, employers will insist on traditional time tracking practices like requiring workers to clock-in-and-out at a physical work location at the same times every day.

Proponents of the new regulations retort that current technologies and modern workplace policies permit employers to keep track of their employees’ hours without any need to reduce flexible work options.  For instance, some workers can telework remotely on laptops and clock-in-and-out at home.

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This fall, Mainers will get to vote on whether to increase the state’s minimum wage which currently stands at $7.50/hour.  Depending on how Mainers vote, the minimum wage could increase over a period of time to $12/hour in 2020.  In cities and states around the nation, similar minimum wage increases are being debated and passed.  Today, the legislature of the largest state in the nation, California, passed a law that will raise California’s minimum wage to $15/hour over the next six years.

Those fighting to raise the minimum wage, including the Maine People’s Alliance, focus on economic fairness arguments.  “It’s not right that a single mother of two can work full time and still not make ends meet for her family,” says the Maine People’s Alliance.  This argument certainly seems to be resonating around the country as states and cities raise the minimum wage.

Opponents to minimum wage increases often argue that increasing wages will hurt workers because employers will hire fewer people if they have to pay them more and employers will have to lay off workers because of increased labor costs.  Economists have debated this point for decades.  Studies have shown that minimum wage increases do not harm workers and businesses like opponents claim.  When employers face mandates to increase wages, they can often absorb increased labor costs because of increased productivity from workers who are motivated to work longer and harder due to higher wages.  Increased wages also tend to decrease employee turnover which is another boost to productivity.  Furthermore, when the minimum wage increases, low-wage workers can afford to pay more for goods and services which means that employers can increase prices in order to bring in the additional money needed to pay the increased minimum wage.

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Many employers in Maine and around the country jointly employ workers.  For example, the relationships between staffing companies and their clients are often designed so that the staffing company and the client jointly employ the workers who perform work for the client.  In these situations, there are special rules for determining how jointly employed workers become eligible for leave under the federal Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), and the companion Maine family medical leave law, as well as for overtime pay under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and the companion Maine overtime law.

The U.S. Department of Labor recently published new FMLA guidance to help employers and workers determine what their obligations and rights are when there is a joint employment relationship. For example, employers with fewer than 50 employees normally do not have to provide FMLA leave to their employees.  However, if two employers jointly employ workers, both employers must count the jointly employed workers for purposes of determining whether they have 50 employees.  If these jointly employed workers push the employers over the 50 employee threshold, they will have to provide FMLA leave to their employees when the employees become eligible for FMLA leave.

Another scenario where joint employment sometimes occurs is when a worker performs work for two companies that are owned and managed by the same people.  For example, a nurse could work for two nursing homes in the same week putting in 25 hours at each nursing home.  If those nursing homes jointly employ the nurse because, for example, the same people own and manage the nursing homes, that nurse is entitled to overtime pay because she worked 50 hours that week.  The U.S. Department of Labor also recently issued guidance on the FLSA to help employers and workers determine whether joint employment exists for purposes of, for instance, determining eligibility for overtime pay.