Wednesday, March 7, 2018
The US Department of Labor (DOL) unveiled yesterday a new six-month pilot program to encourage employer compliance with the Fair Labor Standards Act. Under the Payroll Audit Independent Determination program (PAID), DOL would cover any back pay employers owed to workers under FLSA (wages owed under FLSA’s minimum wage or overtime provisions). In exchange, the employees would release any of FLSA claims for those violations, and employers would agree to self-auditing procedures for their pay practices. See here, the PAID website here, along with mixed reactions reported here.
One DOL-touted benefit of PAID: Participating employers won’t have to pay FLSA “liquidated damages or civil monetary penalties” so long as those employers “proactively work with WHD to fix and resolve the compensation practices at issue.” DOL won’t make them and, it seems, employees would at least release the employer from any liquidated damages otherwise owed under FLSA for the “identified violations” and relevant time period.
This matters. An employer that violates FLSA is on the hook not just for the wages it should have paid but didn’t (back pay) but also “an additional equal amount as liquidated damages,” 29 U.S.C. § 216(b), unless the employer can show that it’d acted “in good faith” and had “reasonable grounds for believing that his act or omission” didn’t violate FLSA, 29 U.S.C. § 260. So, if a worker is owed $40 in unpaid wages, she may recover up to $80, that is, the $40 in unpaid wages plus and the “additional equal amount” (another $40, the “liquidated damages”).
The FLSA liquidated damages provision isn’t just a damages multiplier. Rather, according to the US Supreme Court, it refers a separate item of compensatory damages: the loss that results because the employer didn’t pay the owed wages on time. Such as loss is real, especially where the worker needs the wages paid on time to maintain a minimal standard of living, but Congress thought that type of loss “too obscure and difficult of proof for estimate other than by liquidated damages.” Brooklyn Savings Bank v. v. O’Neil, 324 U.S. 697, 707-08 (1945).
Accordingly, the employer who gets PAID stands to save up to double–not just the back pay they’d owe the employee, but also the liquidated damages they’d also pay, in cases where the employee would otherwise sue and win. Since FLSA has a fee-shifting statute, employers stands to save more still in such cases. (Even more still if employers fear a FLSA hot-goods injunction. More on that here.) By the same token, however, employees who sign FLSA releases under PAID stand to give up any liquidated damages award, that is, up to half of what they’d recover if they sue and win. DOL’s view: Under PAID, employees will get all their owed back wages “faster” than if they had to sue, and “without having to pay any litigation expenses or attorneys’ fees.”
Now, a puzzle: How would an employer getting PAID fare under parallel State wage and hour law? Like FLSA, many States have wage and hour laws with liquidated damages provisions. See, e.g., Cal.Labor Code § 1194.2; Md. Labor and Employment Code § 3-427(a)(2); W. Va. Code § 21-5B-4(a). In States where the employer’s acts or omissions violated both FLSA and a State’s wage and hour law, would the employee’s release under PAID cover only any FLSA claim or any and all legal claims (including State law claims) arising from the employer’s underpayment? In some States and localities, this matters, because the minimum wage and overtime provisions are more generous there. This issue matters less in, for example, the five States with no State minimum wage.