On Wednesday, June 10th, major regulatory changes expected from the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) this summer were the subject of a House Subcommittee on Workforce Protections hearing. The forthcoming changes include the potential doubling of the salary threshold for overtime exemption and a new test for the primary duties of overtime-exempt workers. These modifications should concern franchise businesses, as they could severely limit opportunities for lower-level employees to advance in rank, limit the flexibility of business owners to manage their workers as they see fit, and increase compliance and payroll costs.
Subcommittee Chairman Tim Walberg (R-MI) shared his hope that despite an “administration notorious for overreach”, the Department of Labor should listen to employers’ concerns, and put forward a “proposal that encourages rather than stifles productivity, personal opportunity, and economic growth.”
The Subcommittee heard testimony from industry experts and academics regarding the current and proposed regulatory framework. While the witnesses disagreed in some aspects, they all agreed that the current enforcement structure of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938 needs to change. Three of the key witnesses were: Seth Harris, former Acting Secretary of Labor, Jamie Richardson, a Vice President of White Castle, Inc., a well-known quick service restaurant chain and Leonard Court, a labor lawyer and member of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Labor Relations Committee.
The majority of Mr. Harris’ testimony addressed why the DOL should prioritize combating income inequality by raising the Federal minimum wage and increasing the salary threshold. To back up his claims, he relied on his theory that workers will see pay increases because employers will be forced to reclassify previously overtime-exempt workers as hourly workers, and these workers will then get more 1.5x pay for overtime for the work they previously did on salary.
Mr. Harris’ theories were countered by Mr. Richardson of White Castle, Inc., whom represented the views of many private-sector companies. Mr. Richardson explained that these new regulatory changes will add significant compliance costs, drive down worker opportunities and disrupt business in a negative manner. For example, of the over 400 White Castle restaurants, 445 of the 450 managers started as a cashier or a line cook, and worked their way up. If the primary duties test for a salary employee is narrowed based on strict percentages of time spent on managing, there will no longer be as many opportunities for lower-level employees to get managerial experience necessary for this advancement process. This is because a strict definition of primary duties will no longer afford many managers the flexibility to lead from the front and help out with non-managerial duties as needed. Employers will be forced to choose between classifying a worker as strictly management, and strictly hourly, which will in turn, reduce the amount of managers it can hire. It will also reduce opportunities for workers who depend on the ability to work outside the office to promote flexibility, because they will now fall under strictly hourly regulations, and out-of-office work is hard to measure on an hourly basis.
Contrary to Mr. Harris’ suggestion that these overtime changes would result in additional hours for many workers, Mr. Richardson and another human resources professional on the panel testified that- a reduction of salaried positions will also lead to reduced hours, reduced pay, and a feeling of demotion by these formerly salaried employees. In addition, Mr. Richardson noted an Oxford University study on the effects of an increased salary exemption, which found that an increase to a salary exemption limit of $808 per week, would affect 1.7 million restaurant workers, and would cost business owners $5.2 billion per year. These increased costs will have a negative impact on raises, health benefits, and generous leave policies.
Leonard Court, a member of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Labor Relations Committee, testified about how unfair DOL enforcement techniques create a negative environment for businesses. He cited numerous examples about how Wage and Hours Division investigators have been using a variety of “questionable” tactics to pressure business owners and human resources professionals into unfair and possibly unjustified settlements. Mr. Court also expressed concerns that the DOL needs to release more administrative interpretations of existing law, in order to give businesses more guidance on how to effectively comply with a complex web of regulations.
Among other issues, the three most concerning tactics employed by the DOL were: deliberately pressuring businesses not to use legal counsel, compelling immediate settlements by threatening litigation, and using bait and switch techniques to grab double punitive damages for new cases by using settled ones as admissions of guilt. These tactics result in an enforcement environment that, in the words of Mr. Court, has shifted from an approach of “cooperation and education to one of confrontation and coerced settlement.” Mr. Court cited one case that demonstrates this attitude, where despite months of investigation and six figures of legal fees, the WHD found no wrongdoing by the employer. The tactics and methods of the DOL are even more concerning in light of the Obama Administration’s authorization of expansive funding for franchise-specific Wage and Hour Division investigators.
The final version of these regulations is expected to be released soon, and it appears the potential changes are already creating uncertainty for businesses. As witnesses like Mr. Court and Ms. Berberich, a member of the Society of Human Resource Management observed, more helpful changes the DOL could make include adding clarity to the laws through opinion letters, and by promoting flexibility for the new generation of tech-savvy workers. Written transcripts of witness testimony can be found here, and the video of the full hearing is available here.