New DOL Opinion Letters Address State Law Residential Janitor Exemption and Participation in an Employer’s Optional Volunteer Program
On March 14, 2019, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division (“WHD”) released two opinion letters concerning the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”). One letter addresses the interplay between New York State’s overtime exemption for residential janitors (colloquially referred to as apartment “supers”) and the FLSA, which does not exempt such employees, and the other addresses whether time spent participating in an employer’s optional volunteer program constitutes “hours worked” requiring compensation under the FLSA.
While these opinion letters may not apply to all employers, they discuss general legal principles of broad applicability and so should be studied closely. In particular, these opinion letters are a useful reminder that (1) compliance with state law does not excuse noncompliance with the FLSA and generally will not constitute a good faith defense, and (2) when an employer directs or pressures an employee to volunteer, such as imposing consequences for not volunteering or guaranteeing a bonus for volunteering, volunteer time will likely constitute “hours worked” under the FLSA.
New York’s Residential Janitor Exemption:
In Opinion Letter FLSA 2019-1, the WHD addressed the interplay between federal and state minimum wage and overtime law in the context of live-in superintendents exempt from state minimum wage and overtime requirements under New York’s “residential janitor” exemption.
Starting with general legal principles, the WHD advised that when federal wage and hour law diverges from state or local law, the employer must comply with both laws and meet the standard of whichever law gives the employee the most protection.
The WHD then confirmed that the FLSA offers no analogue to New York’s residential janitor exemption, and that employers cannot rely on this or other state law exemptions from state law minimum wage and overtime requirements to establish a good faith defense to noncompliance with the FLSA.
But the WHD’s analysis did not end there. It explained that when an employee resides on the employer’s premises either permanently or for extended periods of time (whether as a building superintendent or otherwise), not all of the employee’s time at the residence is necessarily “hours worked” under the FLSA.
Here, the WHD cited the longstanding principle that time an employee spends on the premises eating, sleeping, entertaining or engaging in his own pursuits, free from any job-related duties, is not hours worked under the FLSA and need not be compensated. To reduce confusion about when an employee is actually working, the parties can establish a “reasonable agreement” establishing which hours on the premises are hours worked, thereby eliminating the need for precise recordkeeping of work hours.
Participation in Employer-Sponsored Optional Volunteer Program:
In FLSA 2019-2, the WHD examined employee participation in an employer’s optional community service program, pursuant to which employees were compensated for the time they spent volunteering during working hours or while they were required to be on the employer’s premises but were not compensated for hours that they spent volunteering outside of normal working hours (which occurred frequently). At the end of the year, those employees with the greatest community impact, decided, in part, based on the total overall hours each employee volunteered, receive a monetary award.
Relying on several previous opinion letters concerning volunteer activities, the WHD concluded that participation in the described program does not count as hours worked under the FLSA because:
The employer does not require participation in the program nor control or direct volunteer work;
Employees do not suffer adverse employment consequences if they do not participate in the program;
The employer does not guarantee participating employees a bonus for volunteering; and
The employer does not pressure its employees to participate in the program.
The WHD also confirmed that an employer can use a mobile device application to track a participating employee’s time spent volunteering and determine which team’s volunteering has the greatest community impact, provided that this application is not used to direct or control the volunteering activities.