1 INTRODUCTION What would you do if your company received a letter from the United States Department of Labor ( DOL ) stating that an investigator would be at the door in the next few days to talk to the company s employees and examine its wage and hour records? Worse, what if an investigator showed up unannounced and demanded to speak with employees and rifle through the company s records? Would you know what to do? This paper addresses the DOL s audit process and suggests ways to prepare your company when faced with an investigation. THE LAW The Fair Labor Standard Act 1 ( FLSA ) is the foundation of federal wage and hour law. The FLSA regulates minimum wage, overtime pay, equal pay, and child labor. Its overtime requirements are the most significant contributor to wage and hour violations and litigation. The FLSA is enforced by DOL's Wage and Hour Division, which has the authority to investigate and gather data regarding wages, hours, and other conditions of employment to determine whether an employer is violating the FLSA, and to subpoena witnesses and documentary evidence relating to any matter under investigation. 2 In addition to the FLSA, the Wage and Hour Division is also responsible for administering and enforcing a number of other federal laws that set basic labor standards, including: The Family and Medical Leave Act The Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act The field sanitation standards of the Occupational Safety and Health Act The Employee Polygraph Protection Act Certain employment standards and worker protections under the Immigration and Nationality Act Government contracts prevailing wage statutes such as the Davis-Bacon and related Acts and the McNamara-O Hara Service Contract Act Garnishment provisions of the Consumer Credit Protection Act Investigations of employers may be conducted under any one or more of the laws enforced by the Wage and Hour Division. 1 See 29 U.S.C. 201, et seq. 2 See 29 U.S.C. 209; 211(a).
2 WHY EMPLOYERS ARE SELECTED FOR AN INVESTIGATION? The Wage and Hour Division conducts investigations of companies for a number of reasons. Although the Wage and Hour Division does not typically disclose the reason for an investigation, many are initiated by complaints. Complaints may come from a variety of sources, including present or former employees, competitors, unions, trade associations, and other interested outside parties. All complaints are confidential; the name of the complainant and the nature of the complaint are not subject to disclosure. The Wage and Hour Division investigates complaints on a worst-first basis, giving priority to violations that affect the safety or welfare of employees. Examples of such violations include child labor hazardous occupation violations and farm labor complaints of slavery or peonage. In scheduling an investigation, the Wage and Hour Division also considers the seriousness of the violations, the extent of the violations, and the availability of investigative resources required. Many complaints involving minor violations and affecting few employees are handled through the conciliation process. This process, frequently completed through telephone contact rather than a site visit by the investigator, limits the scope of the compliance action to a singe employee or single, minor violation. Typically, the investigator explains the law to the employer and the application of the law to the complainant s allegation. If the employer acknowledges that back wages are due, an arrangement for repayment is ordinarily agreed to and completed. Thereafter, the investigation is closed. If the Wage and Hour Division receives multiple complaints about a single employer, or if the employer resists the conciliation effort, a full investigation will likely occur. In addition to investigating complaints, the Wage and Hour Division also develops its own investigation leads about potential violations. Potential sources of such leads include newspapers and other publications, information from other federal and state agencies, and information from unions, trade associations, and various other organizations. The Wage and Hour Division also sometimes targets certain types of businesses or industries for investigation. For example, the Wage and Hour Division often targets low-wage industries and industries where illegal aliens are used because of the high rates of violations and the employment of vulnerable workers. Occasionally, a number of businesses in a specific geographic area will be examined. This year, for example, the Wage and Hour Division has indicated that it will increase its presence in the Gulf Coast region to meet the compliance challenges associated with the reconstruction efforts from Hurricane Katrina. Regardless of the reason for the investigation, it is important for you to know and understand what the investigator is seeking. It also is important to know and understand practices your company can implement immediately so if you are the subject of an
3 investigation, you know your company s books and records will be in compliance with the law. INVESTIGATION PROCEDURES Initial Interview With Employer An investigator typically begins an investigation by arranging a meeting with the employer. DOL investigators are guided in their investigations by the Wage and Hour Division s Field Operations Handbook (FOH), which sets forth investigation procedures and other instructions concerning the Division s compliance activities. 3 The FOH lists several tasks for the investigator to perform during the initial employer interview: (1) inform the employer that the purpose of his visit is to make an investigation to determine compliance with the FLSA (2) outline in general terms the scope of the investigation, including the examination of pertinent records, employee interviews, and the final conference with the employer or his designated representative to discuss the investigation findings; (3) give the employer a copy of the Handy Reference Guide, CL 101 or CL 102, and any other non-technical publication suitable to the type of establishment being investigated. Other materials shall be furnished at this time if requested; and (4) explore with the employer whether he believes his business to be subject to the FLSA and his general approach to compliance. 4 Although in many instances the investigator will alert an employer before opening an investigation, the Wage and Hour Division does not require an investigator to do so. The investigator has sufficient latitude to initiate unannounced investigations to directly observe typical business operations and develop factual information quickly. Whatever the reason for the audit, a wage and hour investigator has the right to enter your business and gather records that may be necessary to determine whether you are complying with FLSA. Employers may be represented by their accountants or attorneys at any point during this process. Although the law allows most employers to decline to voluntarily cooperate with an investigator, it will do you little good to be adversarial, confrontational or non-cooperative. If you do not voluntarily cooperate with the request for records, DOL can issue an administrative subpoena to compel production of your records. However, if you believe the request for documents contained in the 3 DOL has made some portions of the FOH available on its website at 4 FOH 52a09a.
4 subpoena is too broad or unreasonable, you can question the subpoena's reasonableness through a court petition before facing any penalty for failing to comply. The best option is to reasonably assist the auditor, which means providing the records requested and making employees available for interviews, as well as providing a private space for the auditor to work. Scope of the Investigation The investigator will normally investigate allegations of noncompliance that have occurred during the preceding 2 years. In addition to examining compliance with the FLSA, the investigator will also look for violations of other acts that are administered by the Wage and Hour Division, including, but not limited to, the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 and the Davis-Bacon and related acts. Additionally, investigators may refer apparent violations of other labor statutes or suspected crimes to the appropriate agencies. For example, the Wage and Hour Division has a memorandum of understanding with the agency formerly known as the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), whereby an investigator who suspects violations of the Immigration and Nationality Act will notify the INS. On some investigations, the investigator will inspect the I-9 forms of the company s employees. The Wage and Hour Division has similar arrangements with other agencies including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Inspection of Records and Employee Interviews As noted, Section 11(a) of the FLSA authorizes DOL auditors to investigate and gather data concerning wages, hours, and other employment practices; enter and inspect an employer s premises and records and question employees to determine whether any person has violated any provision of the FLSA or other law enforced by the Wage and Hour Division. The investigator will examine a company s records to determine which laws or exemptions apply. These records include, for example, those showing the company s annual dollar volume of business transactions, involvement in interstate commerce, and work on government contracts. The investigator will also examine the company s payroll and time records not only to determine compliance with the substantive provisions of the FLSA, but also to determine if the company is complying with the record keeping requirements of the Act. 5 Information discovered from an employer s records will not be revealed or otherwise disclosed to the public. Employee interviews are also an important component of the investigation. The FOH provides that the three objective of the interviews are to (1) test the adequacy and accuracy of the records; (2) aid in substantiating or disproving alleged violations, and to 5 The record keeping requirements of the FLSA, which are discussed below, are set out in 29 C.F.R. Part 516.
5 give the employees an opportunity to point out other violations (including those at some other place of employment); and (3) examine the validity of claimed exemptions. 6 The investigator may interview employees on or off the employer s premises, but in either case, the investigator will assure the employee that the information they provide will be held in confidence so as to elicit frank and honest responses. In most cases, while the investigator may explain the law to the employee as well as answer questions about back pay if the employer has agreed to make back wage payments, the investigator will not explain the purpose of the interview to the employee and is not allowed to disclose any information learned from an examination of the employer s records. Finally, the FOH directs the investigator to avoid encouraging employees to file their own civil lawsuit against the employer. 7 AFTER THE INVESTIGATION Following the inspection of records and employee interviews, the investigator holds a final conference with the employer. At the final conference, the investigator informs the employer of the investigative findings. If violations are found, the investigator discusses with the employer both payment of back wages and the employer s future compliance. The Wage and Hour Division will usually attempt to reach a voluntary agreement with the employer regarding issues of compliance and payment of back wages. The investigator ordinarily will request back wages for a 2-year period. If no voluntary agreement can be reached, the investigator will explain to the employer the remedies and enforcement procedures available under the FLSA, which include the following: The Secretary of Labor may file suit on behalf of employees for back wages and an equal amount in liquidated damages. The Secretary may obtain a court injunction to restrain any person from violating the law, including unlawfully withholding proper minimum wage and overtime pay. Civil money penalties may be assessed for child labor violations and for repeat and/or willful violations of FLSA s minimum wage or overtime requirements. Employers who have willfully violated the law may face criminal penalties, including fines and imprisonment. 6 FOH, 52c00a. 7 FOH, 52d02.
6 An employee may file suit to recover back wages, and an equal amount in liquidated damages, plus attorney s fees and court costs. Employees who have filed complaints or provided information during an investigation are protected under the law. They may not be discriminated against or discharged for having done so. If they are, they may file a suit or the Secretary of Labor may file a suit on their behalf for relief, including reinstatement to their jobs and payment of wages lost plus monetary damages. The statute of limitations for these types of claims is two years unless an employer's violations were willful in which case the statute of limitations is three years. A willful violation is found when an employer either knew or showed reckless disregard for whether his pay policy violated the FLSA. A willful violation is deliberate, voluntary or intentional and may be subject to a criminal penalty, including fines up to $10,000 and imprisonment for up to six months for a second violation. Lawsuits filed against employers by the Secretary of Labor alleging violations of FLSA also seek back pay, as well as liquidated damages. If DOL prevails in this type of lawsuit, it is entitled to liquidated damages in an amount equal to any unpaid wages in addition to the back pay and interest. Liquidated damages can be avoided if an employer shows he acted in good faith with a reasonable belief his pay practices complied with the FLSA. PREPARING FOR THE INVESTIGATION Because a company may not be alerted to a wage and hour audit, it is important to take preventive measures to reduce the risk an investigator will find a violation of the FLSA or other applicable laws. Below is a quick checklist of what you can do to prepare: Appoint a company representative or legal counsel to interact with the investigator. If you believe that you may have wage and hour issues, be sure to contact an experienced lawyer as soon as possible so you can get detailed information about your rights and responsibilities with respect to those issues. Before handing documents or other information over to the investigator, make sure you understand the scope of what's being requested, that the documents are responsive to the request, and that your representative or lawyer has reviewed everything first. Provide managers with information about the investigation so they know what to expect.
7 Do not discourage employee cooperation with the investigation or respond negatively to any employee who files a wage and hour complaint. Be prepared to demonstrate your willingness to cooperate with investigators. It will also help to understand in advance what violations are most often discovered by wage and hour investigators. The most common violations found by the Wage and Hour investigators and the most common violations resulting in litigation include the following: Misclassifying employees as exempt and failing to pay them overtime (the requirements for exempt status are set forth in the FLSA and often misapplied). Failing to pay non-exempt employees for overtime, including overtime not approved in advance. Allowing time worked off the clock, such as requiring employees to arrive early to perform necessary preparations for work or stay late to perform duties such as closing up after punching out, and not paying employees for donning and doffing (putting on or taking off specialized work clothes and equipment). Granting compensatory time off to non-exempt employees in lieu of overtime pay. Making automatic wage deductions, such as from exempt employees salaries for part-day absences, or from non-exempt employees pay for meal breaks when they do not clock in or out for those breaks. Failing to pay overtime to independent contractors when they qualify for employee status under the law. Failure to compute overtime on a weekly basis. Each week stands alone. Many employers will average two or more weeks together or fail to identify work weeks in a semimonthly pay period. Over one half of all employers that pay a bonus or commission will fail to include it in the Regular Rate. The first step to reduce the risk that an investigator will discover such violations is to ensure appropriate records are maintained. The FLSA requires employers to keep record of wages, hours, and other conditions and practices of employment. 8 The 8 29 U.S.C. 211(c)
8 FLSA s enabling regulations, 29 C.F.R. Part 516, set forth specific and detailed types of records that must be kept. In general, a company should keep the following information for every employee for at least three years: Full name, home address, ZIP code and birth date (if the employee is younger than 19 years old) Gender Occupation Time and day on which the workweek begins Regular hourly rate of pay, the basis on which wages are paid and regular rate exclusions Hours worked each day and total hours worked each workweek Total daily or weekly straight-time earnings or wages Total weekly overtime compensation Total deductions from wages and additions to wages each pay period Date of payment and the pay period covered by the payment For a more detailed discussion of the record-keeping requirements, including special requirements for workers who are exempt under miscellaneous FLSA provisions, see 29 C.F.R., Part 516. In addition to proper record keeping, an easy practice to immediately implement to lessen the risk of an investigator finding an FLSA violation is to ensure the FLSAmandated poster informing employees of their minimum wage, overtime and other legal rights is prominently displayed. You can obtain a copy of this poster by accessing DOL's website at Also, an employer should determine whether it is properly classifying employees as exempt from FLSA's overtime pay requirements. Particular attention should be given to those employees classified as exempt under one of the "white-collar" executive, administrative and professional employee exemptions. A full discussion of the exemptions is beyond the scope of this paper, but it is important to note a thorough and detailed analysis of every employee classification is necessary to determine whether an
9 employee spends more time doing nonexempt work than is permitted under the regulations, which may render the employee nonexempt and entitled to overtime. It also is important to understand simply paying an employee a salary as opposed to an hourly rate does not exempt the employee from overtime pay requirements. Treating nonexempt salaried employees as if they were exempt may result in your company becoming liable for substantial overtime payments. Equally important is ensuring that non-exempt employees are paid the correct hourly rate for straight-time work (the first 40 hours of work during a workweek) and overtime work (work beyond 40 hours during a given workweek). This becomes an issue that deserves special attention if your company employs individuals who perform two or more types of work at varying wage rates during a single workweek. Many employers are unaware special rules exist in the federal regulations for determining the regular rate of pay from which overtime must be calculated for those employees who perform two or more types of work at varying wage rates during a single workweek. An explanation of the these rules can be found on the Department of Labor s website at Another common problem in some industries is employees working "off the clock." To avoid this violation of FLSA, it is recommended to include a provision in your employee handbook that states nonexempt employees are prohibited from working "off the clock." The handbook should make explicitly clear supervisor approval is required before an employee engages in overtime work. Supervisors must also be trained to monitor non-exempt employees performing overtime work. DOL requires employers to control their employees so work is not performed if the employer does not want it to be performed. Managers may not simply observe "off the clock" work and accept its benefits without facing the prospect of significant liability in the event of a wage and hour audit. Indeed, the most common willful violation is found when employers are discovered to have ordered their employees to work "off the clock" to meet a deadline or keep a project under budget. Although maintaining an employee handbook with the provisions described helps overcome a finding that this type of violation is willful, the best defense is actual evidence the policies in the handbook are enforced. Another area of great concern involves classifying some workers as independent contractors rather than employees. Instead of focusing on the classification given to an individual, auditors focus on the economic realities of the relationship and totality of the circumstances in determining whether a worker is an employee or independent contractor.
10 Key factors auditors and courts consider in determining whether a particular relationship is that of an employer-employee or of an employer and an independent contractor include: (1) the right to control conduct of work; (2) the right of termination; (3) the method of payment; (4) the freedom to select and hire helpers; (5) the furnishing of tools and equipment; (6) self scheduling of working hours; and (7) freedom to render services to other entities. 9 Although there is no one factor that is entirely indicative of the relationship, courts have consistently considered the right to control the key factor. 10 Misclassifying a worker as an independent contractor can result in substantial liability for overtime, payroll taxes, FICA, benefits and other payments, as well as penalties and interest. Understanding these common violations as well as the DOL investigative process should allow you to take preventive measures to minimize your company s exposure under the FLSA and other applicable laws. CONCLUSION: WHY COMPLIANCE MATTERS Violations of the wage and hour provisions of the FLSA are perhaps the single largest liability exposure for employers today. In fiscal year 2006 alone, the Wage and Hour Division recovered more than $171.5 million in back wages for over 246,000 employees. This represents an increase of over 25% over the last five years. 11 While DOL compliance actions increased steadily over the past several years, the number of wage and hour civil lawsuits has exploded. Because the FLSA has attractive damage remedies and often involves large numbers of plaintiffs in a single action, it is the employment lawsuit du jour. Under the FLSA, plaintiffs can recover double the amount of actual damages and attorneys fees. In many instances, attorneys fees reach into the high six figures and sometimes seven figures. Since FLSA cases often involve large groups of employees, liability exposure is often in the millions of dollars, and most insurance policies exclude coverage for FLSA claims. Recent news accounts of settlements reflect the dire consequences of FLSA violations: Wal-Mart - $34 Million (2007); IBM - $65 Million (2006); UBS - $89 Million (2006). To minimize your company s liability exposure under the FLSA, you should consider the following: 9 See Masiers v. Arrow Transfer & Storage Co., 639 S.W.2d 654, 656 (Tenn. 1982); see also Goodale v. Langenberg, 2007 Tenn. App. LEXIS 326, at *13; Winginton v. C.J. Ogle Stone Co., 1990 Tenn. App. LEXIS 481, at *2-3; Carver v. Sparta Electric System, 690 S.W.2d 218, 220 (Tenn. 1985). 10 See Sodexho Mgmt., Inc. v. Johnson, 174 S.W.3d 174, (Tenn. Ct. App. 2004). 11
11 Perform an internal audit of the company s wage and hour practices with the assistance of legal counsel. Review employee classifications, records, and policies, and document the conclusions. Having the audit performed by an attorney, resulting in a legal opinion, helps establish a good faith defense to double damages under the FLSA and can decrease the statute-of-limitations period to two years. Keep an accurate record of non-exempt employees work time. Have both employers and employees approve timesheets/hours records. Pay for all hours worked. Require non-exempt employees to clock in and clock out at the beginning and end of the workday and before and after unpaid lunch periods. Prevent employees from taking breaks in work areas. Pay fixed, predetermined salaries to exempt employees, without improper deductions. Train managers on the FLSA and state wage and hour laws. Create a plan of action and contact legal counsel in the event of a DOL wage and hour investigation. Make documentation of job duties part of every employee s job. Create accurate and effective job descriptions and update them frequently. For exempt positions, ensure the descriptions themselves satisfy the applicable-exemption test. Although understanding the wage and hour audit process eliminates a lot of anxiety, the best practice is to take preventive measures. It is better to conduct your own audit and discuss and correct potential violations with your attorney rather than have the government conduct an audit that reveals those same violations and concludes with a discussion about payment of back pay, penalties and interest. Taking these steps in advance will prepare your company for a DOL wage and hour investigation, and, if litigation does occur, minimize exposure.
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Is Your Company s I-9 Audit Notice in the Mail? by Charles M. Miller 1 On January 20, 2011, ICE Director John Morton focused on I-9 employment verification efforts by Fortune 500 companies by announcing
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Page Number: 1 of 7 TITLE: PURPOSE: FRAUD, WASTE, AND ABUSE The Harris County Hospital District implemented a Corporate Compliance Program in an effort to establish effective internal controls that promote
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Client Alert Employment September 19, 2014 New California Legislation Mandates Paid Sick Days for Employees. By Paula M. Weber, Laura K. Latham, Thomas N. Makris, and Erica N. Turcios This client alert
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Strategy & Insights Energy Employment Law Group Guidance For Employers In The Energy Industry To Avoid Common Wage & Hour Traps Through aggressive investigation and enforcement initiatives, the Department
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