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The U.S. Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division Has Released Three Opinion Letters

Employers and workers both have a great deal more clarity on some issues following three opinion letters recently released by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL). This practice, which is back in force again after a 7-year hiatus, provides the department's opinion on the interpretation of the law when presented with a specific set of facts.

In this round of letters, the DOL addressed compensation for employee travel time, compensation for breaks, and whether certain lump-sum payments by employers are eligible for garnishment.

Employee Travel Time

The first letter, FLSA2018-18, addresses the compensation of travel time for technicians who are paid on an hourly basis. In this specific case, the technicians did not have a set working schedule or fixed employer location. Instead, they traveled to various work sites and worked anywhere from 8 to 16 hours per day. In some circumstances, overnight stay at a hotel would be required. Other times, these workers were required to travel, either by car or airplane, for week-long training courses.

Based on three specific scenarios, the DOL presented its opinion as follows:

  • Travel from an employee's home or hotel room to the worksite does not need to be compensated, even if that travel occurs in a company-issued vehicle

  • Travel between job sites during the normal work day is considered work time and must be compensated

  • Travel for training must be compensated if it occurs during the employee's normal working hours.

When employees don't have a set start and end time to their work day, employers may review time cards and use of the last month's pattern of start and end times to determine a "typical" workday.

When no pattern exists, it's allowable to use an average of the past month's start and stop times. If there truly is no basis for determining an average workday, the employee and employer must work together to come to an agreement regarding compensation of travel time.

Frequent Rest Breaks

Opinion letter FLSA2018-19 addresses concerns regarding an employee whose healthcare provider recommended taking 15-minute breaks every hour due to a serious medical condition. Under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), employers must honor these requests. However, this means the employee is only working six hours of an eight-hour shift. The question, then, lies in whether the employer is required to compensate the employee for the entire eight hours.

After examining the facts, the DOL determined that these breaks primarily benefited the employee and therefore did not fall under the ruling requiring employers to cover short 20-minute rest breaks at certain periods throughout the workday. As long as the employee covered under FMLA is compensated for the same number of breaks as other employees, additional breaks need not be compensated.

Lump-Sum Payments

This month's final opinion letter, CCPA2018-1NA, addressed whether certain forms of lump-sum compensation were subject to garnishment for back child support under the Consumer Credit Protection Act (CCPA). The DOL determined that the following types of compensation are subject to the CCPA caps:

  • Commissions

  • Bonuses

  • Wage replacement under worker's compensation

  • Severance pay

  • Back-and-front payments

The letter further clarified that CCPA caps do not apply to other specific forms of compensation including the buyback of company shares, medical reimbursements, and payment for punitive damages.

Some Final Thoughts

It should be noted that each of these opinion letters applies only to the specific set of circumstances presented by the person requesting the letter. However, employers can use this clarification to guide their decisions when presented with a similar situation.

When in doubt, it's always better to err on the side of caution. If unsure of the proper course of action regarding DOL laws, it's advisable to seek professional advice or request an opinion letter of your own.

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