Recently, the U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”) issued a final rule that would seek to deprive large numbers of employees overtime wages. The Administration’s action eliminates helpful guidance about the types of employees who are not considered to work in “retail” and would presumably be entitled to overtime under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”). Employees considered “exempt” from the FLSA do not benefit from its minimum wage and overtime pay requirements. Exempt workers usually include executive, administrative, or professional employees who meet the tests—including the salary-based test—for the exemption. “Retail” workers may also be considered exempt and be paid on a commission-only basis. For nearly 60 years, the DOL had a list of industries presumably excluded from “retail” as having no “retail concept” – like banking. The Administration’s action would seek to short-change these hundreds of thousands or millions of workers of their overtime.
More specifically, pursuant to Section 7(i) of the FLSA, certain employees paid primarily on commission in the retail and service industries have long been considered exempt from overtime benefits. To qualify for this exemption, the employee must have been employed by a “retail or service establishment,” which the DOL consistently interpreted as an establishment with a “retail concept.” Such establishments typically “sell goods or services to the general public,” “serve the everyday needs of the community,” “[are] at the very end of the stream of distribution,” dispose their products and skills “in small quantities,” and “do not take part in the manufacturing process.” Implementing this interpretation, the DOL maintained lists of establishments that could not claim the overtime exemption: (1) those that the DOL viewed as having “no retail concept” and were always ineligible to claim the exemption (such as banks, certain dry cleaners, tax preparers, laundries, roofing companies, and travel agencies), and (2) those that “may be recognized as retail” but were potentially ineligible for the exemption on a case-by-case basis (such as auto repair shops, hotels, barber shops, scalp-treatment establishments, taxidermists, and crematoriums).
The DOL’s new rule eliminates these lists that provided helpful guidance for more than half a century of what types of establishments could claim the overtime exemption. Employers that previously fit into these categories may now try to assert that they have a retail concept and may qualify for the overtime exemption. According to the Administration, this rule provides greater simplicity and flexibility to retail industry employers because the DOL will now apply the same “retail concept” analysis to all businesses.
We disagree. This rule may be used by employers to attempt to justify paying their workers on commission without overtime, which means employees working longer hours with less pay. Retail workers already have a low median annual income of about $29,000 according the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and are subject to wage and hour abuses. The new rule simply adds confusion around long-standing FLSA guidance for employers and employees about who can and cannot qualify for overtime provisions. The DOL made this decision without a notice and comment period, stating that no such period is required since both lists were interpretive regulations originally issued without notice and comment in 1961. Some attorneys question the propriety of the DOL’s decision.
Courts may disregard this rule change. The DOL’s interpretations and lists are not binding on courts but can serve as guidance and, in the past, have been afforded some deference. However, when the Administration casts aside tried-and-true guidance to support the political agenda of the moment, seemingly without undergoing any rigorous process or study, such a move will be entitled to no deference under Perez v. Mortgage Bankers Association. 135 S.Ct. 1199, 1208 n.4 (2015) (highlighting that an agency’s interpretation that conflicts with a prior interpretation of a regulation is entitled to considerably less deference than a consistently held agency view). Workers’ rights advocates anticipate that when the Administration changes – hopefully soon – helpful guidance will be restored distinguishing true retail from many other industries that would opportunistically try to claim an exemption where none should exist.
Bryan Schwartz Law has written about the Trump Administration’s antipathy toward workers, DOL shifts and overtime before and remains committed to protecting workers’ wages. If you were denied overtime pay you believe you were owed, contact Bryan Schwartz Law today.