Category Archives: Compensation

Underpayment of Wages at Local Charity

Advo Companies, Inc., a worthy local charity that trains and helps people with developmental disabilities find work, was recently investigated by the United States Department of Labor for underpayment of wages to 134 workers. The company had to repay $52,497 in back wages because, among other mistakes, it miscalculated the special wage rate allowed to be paid to their employees.

I don’t know the facts of this particular DOL investigation, but I know Advo Companies has been providing outstanding vocational services to disabled adults and operating group homes in Amarillo for more than 30 years. I seriously doubt that any of the wage problems discovered by the DOL were intentional underpayments. But Advo’s difficulties provide an example of how a very well-meaning employer can easily run afoul of the notoriously difficult Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) requirements.

For most employers, the Fair Labor Standards Act “simply” requires payment of minimum wage and overtime if an employee works more than 40 hours in any one workweek. But there are many ways for an employer to unintentionally break this law:

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New FLSA Minimum Salary Requirements

If you pay any employees on salary instead of hourly, as an employer you need to review new regulations released today by the United States Department of Labor, requiring that the salary you pay to any exempt employee is at least $43,888.00 beginning on July 1, 2024. That minimum increases to $58,656.00 on January 1, 2025. Those are substantial increases from $35,568.00, the salary minimum currently required by the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), which governs minimum wage and overtime.

If you aren’t paying an employee by the hour, plus overtime pay for each hour over 40 worked in a 7-day workweek, then you must prove the following about that salaried employee:

  1. The employee is paid a recurring salary regardless of the hours worked; and
  2. The amount that the employee is paid must amount to at least $844 per week beginning on July 1, 2024 and $1128 per week beginning on January 1, 2025; and
  3. The salaried employee must primarily perform executive, administrative or professional duties (commonly referred to as the white-collar duties).

These exemptions for salaried, white-collar workers are the exception to the overtime rules required by the FLSA, and the burden is on the employer to show that the salaried employee meets all of these requirements or the business will owe the employee unpaid overtime (plus punitive damages and possible penalties) for not paying overtime.

FLSA has been the law since the 1940’s, but the salary minimum amount to meet the exemptions has increased over time. The Trump Administration increased the salary amount in 2019, and it has stayed there for five years. The Department of Labor’s new rule will make those increases automatic every three years, meaning that on July 1, 2027, you can expect another increase in the salary minimum amount if you still want to claim that the employee is exempt from the overtime requirements.

In addition to meeting the FLSA salary minimum requirement, your employee must also perform white-collar duties to qualify for the overtime exemption. The duties tests are harder to meet than you might expect. For example, you may believe that an assistant manager is an “executive”, but the FLSA duties test says that employee must have the power to hire and fire and must personally supervise at least two full-time employees, as well as being in charge of a recognizable store, division or branch of your business to be considered exempt. Most assistant managers don’t meet those requirements. Only the general manager does in many circumstances.

In addition, the new regulations increase the FLSA salary minimum for “highly compensated employees”. The 2019 threshold for highly-compensated employees currently says that any employee making a salary of at least $107,432.00 per year is exempt as long as the employee is performing non-manual work and that employee performs at least one other exempt duty customarily and regularly (such as managing two employees or performing duties of a professional such as a CPA). The salary minimum for highly compensated employees increases to $132,964.00 on July 1, 2024. On January 1, 2025, it will increase again to $151,164.00.

So what do businesses need to do to get in compliance?

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New Laws Regarding Pregnant and Nursing Employees

Every employer with 15 or more names on the payroll needs to understand its obligations under two new federal laws relating to pregnant and nursing employees. With bipartisan support in Congress, the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA) and the Providing Urgent Maternal Protections for Nursing Mothers Act (PUMP Act) were passed last month and take effect almost immediately.

PUMP Act

Nursing mothers received some protections under the Affordable Care Act in 2010 to take breaks at work to nurse their infants or to express milk to be refrigerated and saved for later. Those protections have been expanded and recodified with this new law.

What’s new under the PUMP Act?

  • Employees who are breastfeeding an infant can take advantage of the nursing protections at work for 2 years instead of 1 year allowed under the ACA. The wording in the PUMP Act is ambiguous as to when that two-year protection starts. It says, “for the 2-year period beginning on the date on which the circumstances related to such need arise”. What does that even mean?  My best legal guess is that if an employee nursing a child returns to work three months after the baby is born, then her two-year time period will start running on the date of her return.  But don’t let this ambiguity make you anxious. Employers should be patient and remember that only 35% of US babies are still breastfed at all after they are 12 months old. So many employees will not request this accommodation for two years. If an employee is still taking these breaks when the child is older than two years, call your employment lawyer for advice.
  • Although few employers made this distinction in the past, exempt salaried workers were not covered by the ACA nursing mothers provisions. They now have the same rights to nursing breaks under the PUMP Act as hourly workers had with the ACA. Of course, the challenging matter for employers of trying to figure out how to pay an hourly employee who takes nursing breaks is not an issue for salaried employees, because they are paid the same amount every day regardless of the number of breaks they take.
  • Before an employee complains to the EEOC or otherwise sues the employer over violating the PUMP Act, the employee has to tell the employer about its violation of the PUMP Act and give the employer 10 calendar days to start providing an adequate space and time for the employee to breastfeed or pump. In other words, there is a 10-day grace period for you to get your act together if you have somehow failed to comply with the PUMP Act with a particular employee.

The other provisions of the PUMP Act will be administered identically to the ACA provisions that have been in effect for 12 years, so most employers will have to make few significant changes to comply:

What do you as an employer need to do right now to comply with the PUMP Act?

Continue reading New Laws Regarding Pregnant and Nursing Employees

Commission Pay Arrangements in Texas

If you as an employer pay any of your employees on commission, a recent Texas Supreme Court case makes it clear that your commission arrangement needs to be in writing.

The Court decided Perthuis v. Baylor Miraca Genetics Laboratories LLC in May 2022. In that opinion, the Court addressed the question of when a former employee has to be paid commissions collected by the company after the employee has left the job. In this case, the Texas Supreme Court determined that Brandon Perthuis, the former vice-president of sales at the company, would be entitled to a commission on the largest sale in the company’s history, even though he was terminated the day before the client signed the sales contract (but four days after Perthuis finalized the negotiations for the sale).

The Court reviewed the commission pay agreement and found that it was silent on whether the employee would get paid commissions after his employment was terminated. In the absence of a clear agreement, the Court followed the “procuring-cause doctrine,” meaning that if the employee was the reason the sale was procured, then he was entitled to the commission.

Perhaps the most important part of the Court’s opinion for any company that pays commissions is this: The procuring-cause doctrine provides nothing more than a default, which applies only when a valid agreement to pay a commission does not address questions like whether the  right  to  a  commission  extends  to  sales  closed  after  the  employment relationship ends.  

The procuring-cause doctrine is not a judicially created “term” for commission  contracts. It  does  not  add  anything  to  a  contract  or  take anything away. It does not restrict parties’ ability to modify their contractual  relationships  and  it  does  not  change  the  law  governing whether parties have entered into such a relationship in the first place. Parties certainly may condition the obligation to pay a commission on something  other  than  procuring  the  sale—they  need  only  say  so.

So the Court is saying that the company and the employee can negotiate any kind of commission pay agreement that they want. Or the company can just offer a commission arrangement and the employee can accept it. The courts will only intervene if your commission agreement is not in writing or if your written commission arrangement is silent as to an important term.

So what should a written commission pay arrangement include if any employee is paid fully or partly on commission?

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Texas Employer’s New Year’s Resolutions for 2022

The time between Christmas and New Year’s Day is a good time for employers to reflect on resolutions for 2022. What can you as an employer do in the new year to make your job easier, be a better employer and avoid legal landmines peppering the workplace landscape?

After more than 30 years of advising companies on employment law issues and as a small business owner myself, I have an awareness of and empathy towards the challenges that you are facing. But sometimes we just have to bite the bullet and make some difficult changes. So here are some suggestions of changes you either have to or should consider making in 2022 because of recent changes to the law or the employment arena.

Prepare for the Vaccine Mandate or Testing Policy (for Employers of 100 or more)

Yep, its back. On Friday, December 17, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals lifted the injunction on OSHA’s vaccine or testing mandate. That means that employers with 100 or more employees (“large employers”) are once again required to comply with OSHA Emergency Temporary Standard (“ETS”) that puts employers in the position of either requiring employees to get vaccinated or to undergo weekly testing.

In examining the reasons that OSHA argued in favor of enforcing the ETS, the Sixth Circuit ruled, “It is difficult to imagine what more OSHA could do or rely on to justify its finding that workers face a grave danger in the workplace. It is not appropriate to second-guess that agency determination considering the substantial evidence, including many peer-reviewed scientific studies, on which it relied.” The Sixth Circuit found that the mandate was both constitutional and that OSHA was acting within its statutory authority to enforce occupational health and safety in implementing the mandate.

I’ve already provided an explanation of what the ETS requires of large employers. What has changed since November 4 when I wrote that post is that OSHA has extended the deadlines, but not by much. Here are the current deadlines with which OSHA expects large employers to comply:

  • January 10, 2022:
    • Large employers must require unvaccinated employees to wear masks when indoors in the workplace or when travelling in vehicles with coworkers.
    • Large employers must have a written policy in place notifying employees of their obligation to get vaccinated or undergo weekly supervised COVID-19 testing (not at-home testing).
    • Large employers should have documented each employee’s vaccination status and started accepting paperwork for religious and medical exemptions (which means those employees won’t have to be vaccinated but will have to be tested weekly).
  • February 9, 2022:
    • Employers must start testing unvaccinated employees weekly.
    • OSHA will start enforcing the ETS.

In addition to meeting these deadlines, as a large employer, you still have significant obligations regarding daily recordkeeping, notices to employees, onsite testing and paid time off for vaccines and vaccine side effects, all outlined in the original ETS.  And meeting those obligations by the new deadlines means you are going to be busy for the next few weeks.

The Sixth Circuit’s ruling, which is effective nationwide, has already been appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. There is still a chance that this ETS will not take effect. However, the Supreme Court has consistently upheld every COVID vaccine mandate with which it has been presented over the last year. The most recent occurrence was on Monday, December 13, when a 6-3 court (conservatives Kavanaugh, Barrett and Roberts voted with the three liberal justices) upheld New York State’s requirement that all health care workers there have to be vaccinated, even though religious exemptions will not even be considered for employees doing direct patient care. In other words, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to overturn a much more uncompromising mandate just last week.

Get Serious About Preventing Sexual Harassment

As of September 1, 2021, Texas now has one of the strictest laws in the country prohibiting sexual harassment. Instead of only affecting employers with at least 15 employees like every other federal and state discrimination law, Texas’ new sexual harassment law not only makes employers with just one employee liable, but also for the first time allows harassed employees to sue supervisors and managers (and company owners) individually for sexual harassment along with the company.

To protect your business, at a bare minimum, you must have a written policy prohibiting sexual harassment in your employee manual. In that policy, you must name a person to whom employees should report the harassment who will take the complaint seriously and get an investigation performed.

Continue reading Texas Employer’s New Year’s Resolutions for 2022

How to Hire and Retain During the “Big Quit”

Almost daily, my employer clients are telling me about their inability to hire workers to fill job openings in the Texas Panhandle. This local trend reflects a nationwide problem. The Bureau of Labor Statistics just reported last week that 4.3 million people left their jobs in August 2021, the highest “quits rate” since the BLS started tracking the numbers in 2001.  

Industries that were most affected by this high quits rate in August included hotels, bars, restaurants, retail, manufacturing, construction, healthcare and education. The media has dubbed this as the “Great Resignation” or the snappier “Big Quit”.

We knew this was coming even before the BLS released that report on October 12. Surveys by Microsoft and by the Society for Human Resource Management earlier this year both found that 40% of employees say they have or will quit their jobs in 2021. That’s double the number in 2019, just before the pandemic.

There are lots of reasons why employees are participating in the “Big Quit” and employers are having such a challenging time filling open positions. But the reasons are not solely, or even chiefly, related to government handouts. Ending the federal supplement to unemployment in Texas and other states at the end of June 2021 didn’t create any improvement in employers’ ability to hire. In fact, the recent BLS numbers showed that employees walking away from their jobs markedly increased after the unemployment benefits expired.

Reasons for the Big Quit

The reasons for the Great Resignation seem to be related to what employees discovered about themselves and their jobs during the pandemic:

  • More than four million Americans dropped out of the labor force entirely during the pandemic, particularly women and workers over 55 years old. They had reasons ranging from childcare duties, to early retirement, to concerns about contracting COVID. Sixty-eight percent of workers who told SHRM that they were going to quit their jobs in 2021 said that they decided to make a change during the COVID-19 pandemic. Extended time at home has convinced many workers that they are dissatisfied with their current career and would rather transition to being a stay-at-home parent, pursue a new educational opportunity, look for a better job or retire.
  • A huge wave of Baby Boomers retired, many because of unpaid furloughs during the pandemic. But a year later, even more are retiring, reporting that they have reached the point of exhaustion and will be happier if they leave the workplace altogether, even if it means a less healthy retirement income. The estimate is that 10,000 Boomers retire each day in the US, and because the following generations are smaller, finding and retaining replacements for the Boomers is proving difficult and a long-term problem, projected to continue for the next 10-15 years.
  • Restaurant staff, grocery store employees, delivery drivers, heathcare workers, teachers, retail workers and others reached their breaking points. “Throughout the pandemic, essential workers – often in lower paid positions – have borne the brunt of employers’ decisions. Many were working longer hours on smaller staffs, in positions that required interaction with the public with little to no safety measures put in place by the company and, at least in the US, no guarantee of paid sick leave. It quickly burnt workers out,” concluded a BBC report.
  • Low wages are a hugely motivating factor in the Great Resignation. The federal (and Texas) minimum wage hasn’t increased above $7.25 since 2009, even though the consumer prices have. An item that cost $7.25 in 2009 now costs $9.27 in 2021. Employees who make these minimum wage know that they sink further into poverty every year, and they are running away from low paying jobs as fast as possible.
  • The SHRM survey found that 53% of the people leaving their jobs in 2021 did it for better compensation. Employees who are stressed and in low satisfaction jobs with irregular schedules like food service don’t have to perform that work anymore for the low wages that employers were paying before the Big Quit. “Workers’ wages are rising at the fastest pace in years, due largely to structural shifts in labor markets, talent supply challenges and potential inflation.  Research shows 72% of companies are updating pay and benefits programs in 2021 to address multiple challenges”, according to Forbes.  

This kind of massive reorganization of the labor market happens after world wars and economic recessions. The COVID pandemic has apparently created the same type of seismic shift where it is a seller’s market for employees to demand and receive better employment perks in exchange for agreeing to perform the work.

So what should a Texas Panhandle employer do to improve recruiting of employees for all those open positions in 2021?

Continue reading How to Hire and Retain During the “Big Quit”

How the Stimulus Bill Benefits Small Employers

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act has expired as of December 31, meaning that employers are no longer obligated to provide two weeks of emergency paid sick leave to employees who miss work because they are sick with COVID-19 or were exposed and quarantined.

However, employers may still voluntarily provide this paid sick leave through March 31, 2021, and claim the federal payroll tax credit if they do so.

The same holds true for paid family leave if schools are completely closed (which rarely has been happening in the Panhandle of Texas). If an employer voluntarily pays up to 10 weeks in paid family leave while still following the FFCRA rules about who is eligible for this leave, the employer can get the federal government to absorb the cost of that leave through the tax credit mechanism.

This tax credit extension during the first quarter of 2021 is just one part of the new stimulus bill signed into law on December 27 that affects employers. To be clear, if an employee has already used up the 80 hours of emergency paid sick leave or 10 weeks of paid family leave during 2020, this tax credit extension does not mean that you as an employer can take a tax credit for any additional COVID-related leave given to that employee in 2021.

The helpful Paycheck Protection Program has been funded again in the new stimulus bill, but there is a new twist to it that may be very beneficial to small businesses who continue to be adversely affected by the pandemic. A business can apply for a second PPP loan, even if you received one in 2020, as long as you can show that you had at least one bad revenue quarter in 2020.

These “Second Draw” PPP loans are available if you can demonstrate:

  1. You employ no more than 300 employees; and
  2. You have used all of your earlier PPP loan; and
  3. You had gross receipts in one quarter of 2020 that were at least 25 percent less than the same quarter in 2019.

Another piece of good news coming out of the stimulus bill is that Congress corrected a ridiculous IRS opinion that said while your PPP loan(s) were going to be taxed as income to your business, you couldn’t deduct the business expenses that you paid with the loan proceeds. That has now been clarified to reflect Congress’ original intention—the loan proceeds will not be taxed as income and the expenses that you paid with them (payroll, rent, utilities, etc.) will be deductible as normal business expenses.

Congress also simplified that forgiveness process even more for PPP loans under $150,000. You’ll now have to just self-certify that you spent the PPP loans as required by law.

Congress also addressed unemployment insurance for the 20 million Americans who are still out of work. Under the CARES Act passed in the spring of 2020, in addition to state unemployment benefits (which are very skimpy in Texas), the federal government provided an additional $600 per week through July 31, 2020. After that expired, the unemployed were left with just their state benefits. Under the new stimulus bill, the feds are adding $300 per week to state unemployment payments for 11 weeks, through March 14, 2021. The new bill includes a return to work reporting requirement, meaning that the states must allow employers to report when a worker refuses an offer to return to his/her job without good cause.

If you were one of the few employers who deferred their employees’ payroll taxes from September – December 2020 under President Trump’s vague Executive Order issued in August, you will now have to increase their withholding to pay back those deferred amounts. Your employees have until the end of 2021 to get those amounts repaid. The December stimulus bill extended that deadline from April 30, 2021 to December 31, 2021. Some employees were hoping for complete forgiveness of these deferred taxes, but alas, an extended time to repay was all they received.

Finally, employers may be happy to learn that business meal deductions have returned to their previous 100% level for 2021 and 2022. So once this pandemic has subsided, you can fully deduct your celebratory meals with your clients.

What did the new stimulus bill not do?

  • There will be no $2000 per person stimulus checks. The $600 check is it, and it phases out at higher incomes.
  • Liability protections for businesses from lawsuits for COVID-related injuries did not make it into the final bill.
  • Help for states and municipalities whose tax revenue has declined but who have had enormous COVID-related expenses was not approved.

COVID-19 Wildfire in the Texas Panhandle

COVID-19 infections in the Texas Panhandle are raging like a wildfire, so what is an employer’s duty to prevent its spread and what procedures should be followed with COVID-positive employees, quarantines, and employees whose off-duty behavior is pyromaniacal?

As of Friday, October 30, Amarillo’s hospitals are alarmingly full of patients suffering from COVID-19. Our hospitalization rate yesterday was 27.4%, meaning that our area has exceeded the governor’s 15% threshold (to shut down bars, stop elective surgeries and reduce occupancy of businesses and restaurants to 50%) for 13 days. El Paso is the only spot in Texas faced with worse effects of the pandemic at this time.

Our local officials and physicians are exceedingly alarmed about our overburdened hospitals, begging Panhandle citizens to stay home as much as possible and wear a mask when in public, along with practicing social distancing, hand-washing, etc. We all have to “decrease our social calendars and increase our COVID-consciousness,” Amarillo Mayor Ginger Nelson said, because our infections are not arising from large hotspots like prisons or meatpacking plants, but from birthday parties, baby showers and other small community-spreading events. And city officials are saying that the next six weeks of holiday celebrations could make a bad situation even worse.

Despite COVID fatigue, it is clear that hoping for “herd immunity” to COVID-19 in our area is not an option because our hospitals are already overwhelmed. Waiting for everyone to develop immunity to this disease is like passively watching a wildfire burn thousands of acres today and believing that if 2021 turns out to be a wet year, that future precipitation will help extinguish the current blaze.

City leaders are begging employers to take the lead to educate and monitor their employees. Some employers are returning to remote work options that were common in the spring of 2020. If employees are to remain in the workplace, your business should be enforcing Governor Abbott’s mask order, GA-29, which requires masks be worn inside commercial establishments whenever employees are less than six feet apart. It only makes good business sense to follow these mandates to try to reduce the absenteeism of your employees and lost productivity, not to mention avoiding the cost of providing paid time off to your sick and quarantined employees. I’ve already counseled some small employers who did not have enough healthy employees, so they had to close the business for several days.

But while enforcing good health and safety practices inside your business is important right now to prevent as much spread of COVID-19 as possible, you are still going to have to deal with some employees who become infected or have had direct exposure to the virus. I’ve previously addressed the six steps for dealing with these infections and exposure. However, there has been an avalanche of new information and protocols since I last wrote about employer COVID procedures, so here is an updated summary:

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Employees and Covid-19

Ten Ways to Get Sued by Employees During a Pandemic

Even though the idea has been in the news recently, at the current time there is no absolute liability immunity for Texas employers from COVID-19-related claims made by employees who are exposed to the virus in your workplace or otherwise harmed during the pandemic. You can be sued for many different legal failures as an employer during this crisis, so you should know what the law expects of you right now.

The law firm of Fisher Phillips is maintaining a fascinating database of COVID-19-related cases filed so far in 2020. Their database shows that 38 COVID lawsuits have been filed in Texas for claims such as unsafe workplaces, discrimination, paid leave violations, retaliation and even wrongful death. I have no doubt those claims will continue to increase as employers struggle with all of the safety guidance and other rules burying them during this crisis.

I’ve narrowed the possibilities of a Texas employer getting sued during this global pandemic down to these ten mistakes:

Continue reading Ten Ways to Get Sued by Employees During a Pandemic

Six Steps for Responding to COVID-positive or COVID-exposed Employees

Almost every day I get a call from a different employer asking how their company should respond to the news that an employee is either symptomatic, COVID-positive or has had direct exposure to a person who has the virus. Now that the coronavirus is spreading through community contact rather than just in certain workplace hot spots like the meatpacking plants, many more employers are experiencing the workplace dilemmas caused by ill or exposed employees.

What are the recommended steps that a company needs to take to respond well to that employee and to keep its other employees safe?

Continue reading Six Steps for Responding to COVID-positive or COVID-exposed Employees