The Employee Benefits Security Administration of the Department of Labor has just released for public consideration, and published for comment, a significant new interpretation of the term “employer” under ERISA. Under the proposal, small businesses and sole proprietors would have more freedom to band together to provide health coverage for employees in what are referred to as “Small Business Health Plans” or “Association Health Plans”. The proposal would allow employers to form a Small Business Health Plan on the basis of geography or industry. A plan could serve employers in a state, city, county, or a multi-state metro area, or it could serve all the businesses in a particular industry nationwide.
Up until now, most association arrangements, such as Multiple Employer Welfare Arrangements (MEWAs), have been considered as a collection of individual employer plans, rather than a single plan. This meant that the plans were treated as being in the small employer group market or the large employer group market based on the number of participants in each employer’s workforce. The effect of the new interpretation would be to put all the employer populations together, so they would all be in (most commonly) either the large group market or, if the association decides to be self-insured, in the self-insured market.
In addition, the new interpretation would permit sole proprietors and partners to be treated as both employers, for certain purposes, and employees for the purpose of being able to participate in the Association Health Plan. In the past, “employee-less” groups were treated as not covered by ERISA. Now, entrepreneurs with zero employees can obtain coverage through the association, and business owners who are active in the business can obtain coverage alongside their employees.
A third major part of the new interpretation is a non-discrimination requirement. As currently envisioned, an association cannot discriminate against employers based upon any health characteristic of the employer’s workforce. Nor can the plan discriminate within an employer group based on health characteristics of any participant. However, the association can establish different rates for “non-health” characteristics, such as bargaining unit membership, beneficiary vs. participant status, retiree vs active status, full- vs. part-time status, and occupation. The specifics of what associations can do to “police” member employer conduct and how the association can encourage wellness initiatives will require additional interpretation.
The fourth major change from current interpretative guidance is that associations may be formed specifically for the purpose of having a benefit plan. Until now, an association had to have had a reason to exist apart from providing benefits, such as promoting the industry in which its members operate. The limitation is now that the association may be formed specifically to offer health plans if it offers them (1) within a state or (2) within a metropolitan area, even if the metropolitan area covers more than one state. The definition of the metropolitan area is one of the points as to which the DOL is seeking input.
As with all things ERISA, the new interpretation is complex and raises significant issues for small- and medium-sized employers who are not already self-insured. Interested parties now have 60 days to submit comments. Because the initiative for the new interpretation was an Executive Order, it is anticipated that the time from the close of comments to issuance of a final rule will be short. Employers would be well-advised to follow developments closely, submitting comments where appropriate and encouraging any associations to which they belong to weigh in.
Are the changes to the overtime rules going to take effect or not? Ever since a federal court issued an injunction in late 2016 stopping major changes to the federal overtime rules, employers have anxiously been waiting for an answer to that question. Last week, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) turned the tables, and asked employers and others whether the overtime rules should change and, if so, how they should change. More specifically, the DOL published a formal Request for Information (RFI) in the Federal Register on July 26 acknowledging concerns about the previously proposed changes and asking the public for its help in formulating a new proposal.
The DOL’s RFI poses eleven specific questions and asks interested individuals and organizations to provide written answers to those questions within 60 days. The questions suggest that the DOL may be open to considering increasing the minimum salary level for exempt employees, but perhaps not increasing it as much as the DOL had proposed in 2016. The questions also suggest the DOL may revisit the idea of automatic increases to the minimum salary level and may explore other overtime rule changes.
Many commenters view the DOL’s action as a positive sign for employers, especially given certain business-friendly comments made by Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta during his March 2017 confirmation hearing. At the very least, this is the first step in a process that will hopefully result in more balanced and reasonable changes to the overtime rules. We will certainly continue to monitor the issue.
On March 27, 2017, President Donald Trump signed a resolution that permanently blocked an executive order previously issued by President Obama, which had required federal contractors to disclose labor law violations.
The Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces executive order signed by President Obama in 2014 had been called the “blacklisting” order by those in the business sector, as it required federal contractors and subcontractors bidding on large ($500,000) contracts to report violations of certain federal and state labor and employment laws that occurred in the last 3 years, and to update those disclosures every six months, as well as track the compliance by subcontractors, regardless of whether the violations had been finalized.
In order for the resolution to get to President Trump’s desk, it had to pass both the House and Senate, which it did by narrow margins. A significant aspect of the resolution is that it was passed by Congress under the Congressional Review Act (CRA), which was part of the 1996 Contract with America that was enacted under then House Speaker Newt Gingrich. By passing the resolution under the CRA, this means that a federal agency cannot create a substantially similar rule in the future without Congressional approval.
The “blacklisting” rules were widely criticized by federal contractors as being costly, requiring companies to report mere allegations that had not been fully adjudicated, and as duplicating existing debarment procedures.
A similar rule to President Obama’s “blacklisting” order had been issued by President Clinton near the end of his term, but that rule was quickly repealed by President Bush. This action by President Trump renders moot an action pending in the Eastern District of Texas, wherein a federal judge had temporarily blocked implementation of portions of the rule last fall.
The Office of Management and Budget released President Trump’s “America First” budget blueprint for discretionary spending earlier this morning. Overall, it increases spending on defense, veterans’ health, immigration enforcement and combatting opioid abuse while decreasing civilian discretionary spending. Hardest hit are programs such as the National Endowment for the Arts, the Legal Services Corporation, The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which were cut completely from the budget. The Environmental Protection Agency and State Department received deep cuts, which will reduce foreign aid. The Department of Labor will have its budget reduced by about one-fifth.
The Budget document provides the following introduction to the DOL appropriation request:
The Department of Labor fosters the welfare of wage earners, job seekers, and retirees by safeguarding their working conditions, benefits, and wages. With the need to rebuild the Nation’s military without increasing the deficit, this Budget focuses the Department of Labor on its highest priority functions and disinvests in activities that are duplicative, unnecessary, unproven, or ineffective.
The President’s 2018 Budget requests $9.6 billion for the Department of Labor, a $2.5 billion or 21 percent decrease from the 2017 annualized CR level.
The President would totally eliminate the Senior Community Service Employment Program (SCSEP), which retrains unemployed older workers for unsubsidized private sector jobs on the basis that it is ineffective. It closes underperforming Job Corps Centers, although it does not specify which ones. The budget would limit the Department’s International activity to ensuring that American Workers are protected under trade arrangements. While reducing federal subsidies for job training and employment service grants to states (in favor of greater reliance on state and local government and employer funding), it increases support for “evidence-based” apprenticeship programs to prepare individuals for jobs. Finally, it eliminates OSHA training grants, so that the agency can focus on its core mission of worker safety.
Overall, the cuts do not appear to drastically reduce the ability of the DOL to conduct its investigation and enforcement activities as much as might have been expected. There is much yet to be determined, however, and the budget process is likely to lead to substantial changes in the budget. It is clear, however, that the Trump Administration is prepared to make major cuts in civilian discretionary spending in order to increase funding for border security and military capacity.
On December 19, the United States Department of Labor issued comprehensive new guidance making it clear that it intends to continue to aggressively pursue employers who misclassify employees as independent contractors. The transmittal message for the new guidance, entitled “Misclassification Affects Everyone,” states the DOL’s position that “The misclassification of employees as independent contractors is a huge problem for workers, employers who play by the rules and our economy.” Although the document states that the DOL supports valid independent contractor arrangements, the definite direction of the DOL is to limit many common ways businesses use independent contractors rather than employees.
The DOL’s new guidance is accessible through a web page and provides quotes from misclassified workers, including one who compares his job as a taxi driver to “modern day slavery.” Although the approach may seem overly dramatic, the web site does provide a variety of useful tools, such as a section entitled “Myths About Misclassification,” which addresses twelve commonly held misconceptions about independent contractor arrangements.
The DOL’s overall direction under the incoming presidential administration cannot be predicted with complete certainty, but employers can safely predict that their classification of workers as independent contractors will continue to be closely scrutinized—not just by the DOL, but also by state and local taxing authorities. Employers should therefore consider auditing their independent contractor arrangements by using the DOL’s new guidance and by consulting with their employment counsel.
In a much-welcomed eleventh-hour ruling yesterday, the United States District Court in the Eastern Division of Texas issued a preliminary injunction enjoining the United States Department of Labor (“DOL”) from implementing changes to overtime rules under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) (the “Final Rule”). The Final Rule, which nearly doubles the salary threshold for the overtime exemption, was scheduled to take effect on December 1, 2016. The injunction blocks the Rule, for now. For more information on what the Final Rule would mean for you or your company, click here.
The U.S. Department of Labor recently released its final rule requiring federal contractors and subcontractors to provide their employees with paid sick leave each year. This rule implements Executive Order 13706, which President Obama signed in September 2015. The rule takes effect on November 29, 2016, though generally it applies only to new contracts that are awarded on or after January 1, 2017. Nevertheless, covered contractors should begin taking steps to comply with the rule soon.
Under the rule, employees are entitled to one hour of paid leave for every 30 hours worked, up to a maximum of 56 hours of leave per year. Alternatively, contractors may provide 56 hours of leave to employees at the beginning of each year. In either case, the leave must generally carry over from year to year. In some situations, however, the amount of available leave can be capped at 56 hours.
Employees may use the leave for their own illness, preventative treatment or other health care needs, or to care for a family member or domestic partner. Employees may also use the leave in certain domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking situations.
The rule does not apply to all employees of a covered contractor, but only to those who perform work in connection with a covered contract. There is also a short-term exemption for employees who are governed by a collective-bargaining agreement, if the CBA provides at least 56 hours of paid time off that may be used for sickness- and health- related reasons. These contractors have until the CBA expires or January 1, 2020 (whichever comes first) to comply with the rule.
Because non-compliance can result in significant penalties, including a possible three-year debarment, contractors should review their existing sick leave policies and ensure compliance with the rule before it takes effect. Contractors should also familiarize themselves with the various procedures governing leave administration, including leave tracking, employee notice, and health care-provider certifications.
With the clock counting down toward the December 1, 2016, effective date of the U.S. Department of Labor’s new overtime rules, officials from 21 states have stepped forward to try to stop the DOL in its tracks. In particular, on September 20, 2016, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, backed by 21 state officials from across the country, filed a lawsuit in federal court in Sherman, Texas, challenging the DOL’s rules. The lawsuit challenges the rules on several substantive and procedural grounds and seeks an injunction preventing the rules from taking effect. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez expressed confidence that the rules will survive all legislative, judicial or other challenges. The same day, private sector groups, led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, filed a suit seeking the same relief in the same court.
It is clear that both sides of this battle will approach it with vigor, although it is not at all clear in whose favor the court will rule. As a result, employers who are making plans to comply with the rules as of December 1 should not abandon those plans just yet. We will follow the lawsuit closely, and we will be prepared to advise our clients as to any developments that may arise.
By now most employers are (hopefully) aware that the U.S. Department of Labor has significantly changed some of the rules governing exemptions from the overtime pay requirements of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”). The revised regulations will go into effect on December 1, 2016, and they will principally do the following:
- Immediately double the minimum salary threshold for the “white collar” exemptions to $913 per week ($47,476 annualized)
- Adjust the minimum salary threshold for inflation every three years
- Change the way the minimum salary threshold is calculated so that employers can count certain bonuses and commissions toward as much as 10% of the threshold
- Set the total annual compensation requirement for the highly-compensated employee exemption to the annual equivalent of the 90th percentile of full-time salaried workers nationally (i.e., $134,004)
Needless to say, these unprecedented changes present significant challenges for employers. Given the potential consequences of noncompliance it is essential that employers act immediately to ensure they have taken all necessary steps to comply with the new regulations prior to December 1st. While each workplace will be different, some general suggestions that employers should consider include the following:
- Immediately identify exempt positions that fall below the new minimum salary threshold and consider
- Who will get a pay raise to maintain the exemption
- Who will be reclassified as non-exempt
- For reclassified employees, study the employees’ average hours worked for purposes of setting new pay rates
- Given the likelihood of increased litigation and stepped up DOL enforcement, consider reclassifying other “vulnerable” positions
- Ensure accurate timekeeping of all hours worked
- Train reclassified employees, many of whom will be uncomfortable with or resistant to tracking their hours worked
- Train managers
- Address “bring your own device” issues (e.g., after-hours e-mails, texts, and phone calls)
- Review and update policies and procedures
- Policies related to overtime
- Policies related to recording hours worked
- Communicate the changes to your workforce
- Plan for future inflation-driven adjustments to the minimum salary threshold to the extent possible