If you are an employer within the jurisdiction of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and offer cash payments to employees who opt out of group health coverage (“opt-out payments”), what you don’t know about the court’s 2016 opinion in Flores v. City of San Gabriel may hurt you.
Specifically, the Ninth Circuit court held that opt-out payments had to be included in the regular rate of pay used to calculate overtime payments under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). In May 2017 the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the opinion, making it controlling law within the Ninth Circuit, and hence in the states of Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Washington.
The Flores case arose when a group of active and former police officers in the City of San Gabriel sought overtime compensation based on opt-out payments they received between 2009 and 2012 under a flexible benefits plan maintained by the City. The plan required eligible employees to purchase dental and vision benefits with pre-tax dollars; they could also use the plan to purchase group health insurance. Employees could elect to forgo medical benefits upon proof of alternative coverage; in exchange they received the unused portion of their benefits allotment as a cash payment added to their regular paycheck. The opt-out payments were not insubstantial, ranging from $12,441 annually in 2009 to $15,659.40 in 2012. The City’s total expenditure on opt-out payments exceeded $1.1 million dollars in 2009 and averaged about 45% of total contributions to the flexible benefits plan over the three years at issue.
The court held that the City had not properly excluded the opt-out payments from the regular rate of pay for overtime purposes under the FLSA, as they were items of compensation even though not tied directly to specific hours of work, and further that the “bona fide” benefit plan exception did not apply, because, inter alia, the cash opt-out payments received under the flex plan comprised far more than an “incidental” portion of the benefits received.
Despite the significant potential impact of getting this classification wrong, the City appears not to have sought a legal opinion on whether it could permissibly exclude the opt-out payments under the FLSA. Instead, a City employee testified that it followed its normal process of classifying the item of pay through joint decision by the payroll and human resources departments, without any further review of the classification or other due-diligence. For this oversight, the court awarded liquidated damages against the City for failure to demonstrate that it acted in good faith and on the basis of “reasonable grounds” to believe it had correctly classified the opt-out payments under the FLSA. Further, the court approved a three-year statute of limitations for a “willful” violation of the FLSA, rather than the normal two year period, on the grounds that the City was on notice of its FLSA requirements, yet took “’no affirmative action to ensure compliance with them.’”
Although Flores involved a benefit plan maintained by a public entity, there is nothing in the Ninth Circuit’s opinion that limits its scope to public entity employers.
Therefore employers within the Ninth Circuit who offer opt-out payments should review their payroll treatment of these amounts and seek legal counsel in the event there if potential overtime liability under the FLSA. They should also confirm that cash opt-out payments remain an “incidental” percentage of total flex benefits, which the Department of Labor has defined in a 2003 opinion letter as no more than 20% of total plan benefits. In Flores the Ninth Circuit found the 20% threshold to be arbitrary, but suggested that it was likely lower than 40% of total benefits. Finally, employers offering opt-out payments should also revisit the other legal compliance hurdles that these payments present under the ACA, which after its recent reprieve from repeal/replace legislation, remains, for now, the law of the land.