California Employers: Do You Know When Your Furlough is a Discharge?

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To employers, it may seem like California regulates nearly everything about employment relations. Yet, surprisingly, statutes and courts in California never answered the question of when a temporary layoff becomes a “discharge” of furloughed employees. That is, until the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals did so recently in Hartstein v. Hyatt Corporation, 82 F.4th 825. The implications of this new ruling for California employers and employees are considerable.

Under the new ruling, any temporary layoff or furlough of employees without a specific return-to-work date within the employees’ regular pay period is considered a “discharge” under California Labor Code Section 201. That in turn triggers an immediate obligation for employers to pay all laid off employees all of the wages they have earned, including any pay owed for accrued vacation or Paid Time Off (“PTO”). Failure to pay in full all accrued wages, vacation and PTO when due runs the risk of substantial “waiting time penalties” under Labor Code Section 203. That can be a huge burden and risk for employers, as the Hartstein case demonstrated.

Hartstein arose during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, when many businesses were forced to greatly reduce or cease business operations without knowing when they would be able to reopen. In March 2020 Hyatt, like many employers, furloughed thousands of employees and was unable to provide any specific return-to-work date. Hyatt advised employees that vacation and PTO would not accrue during the temporary layoff, and Hyatt offered to pay any accrued vacation to employees upon request. A month later, in June 2020, Hyatt sent a letter advising employees that the temporary layoff had become permanent and employees would be paid their accrued vacation and PTO as required by Labor Code Section § 201 when a “discharge” occurs.

Hyatt employee Karen Hartstein filed a class-action and Private Attorneys General Act (PAGA) lawsuit, arguing that a “discharge” had occurred with the indefinite temporary layoff in March 2020, and not when employees were permanently laid off in June 2020. The key question was whether a temporary layoff, lacking a specified return date, constituted a “discharge” under Labor Code Section 201, which had no definition of “discharge.” No previous published case had addressed the issue.

The Ninth Circuit turned to the California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE) for guidance in its previously-issued Opinion and its Policies and Interpretations Manual. DLSE had indicated that, when an employee is laid off without a specified return date within the regular pay period, the employer must immediately give the employee a final paycheck that includes vested vacation pay. DLSE reasoned that this interpretation best aligned with the statute’s purpose of protecting workers and ensuring prompt payment of earned wages.

The Ninth Circuit characterized Hyatt’s actions as “understandable given the uncertainty during the early period of the pandemic,” but remanded the case to the trial court to determine whether Hyatt’s failure to issue full final paychecks in March 2020 constituted a “willful” violation, which would expose Hyatt to waiting time penalties. That question remains open and will be watched closely by employment lawyers.

Hartstein v. Hyatt provides new guidance to California employers who may need to implement open-ended furloughs or temporary shutdowns. This decision has made clear that California employers who furlough or temporarily lay off employees without specifying a return-to-work date within the same pay period should immediately issue final paychecks that include each employee’s vested and unused vacation or PTO.

Hartstein v. Hyatt demonstrates again that employment law in California is constantly evolving, and outcomes may not be as predictable as employers would hope. California employers facing such issues are well-advised to consult with qualified employment counsel to stay up-to-date on these and other important employment issues. Conkle, Kremer & Engel’s attorneys can help advise employers in navigating these complex and evolving issues.

 

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U.S. CARES Act: PPP Loans Provide Gifts for Careful Employers

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The U.S. Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (“CARES”) Act passed on March 27, 2020, and signed into law by President Trump on March 28, 2020, aims to address some of the economic impact of the COVID-19 crisis. The entire act is a $2 Trillion economic stimulus package – the largest ever. Aside from the well-publicized $1,200 per person payments, the CARES Act provides hundreds of billions of dollars for large and small businesses, state and local governments and public health.

Rather than try to summarize the entire CARES Act, we’d like to focus on what many of our clients should pay attention to first: The $349 billion loan fund for small businesses called the “Paycheck Protection Program” (“PPP”) administered by the Small Business Administration. The PPP is designed to be a huge tax-free gift to employers, provided that the employers are careful about how they use it.

The basic points for PPP loans under the CARES Act are:

  1. PPP loans are available to businesses with fewer than 500 employees, as well as 501(c)(3) non-profits, sole-proprietors, independent contractors and other self-employed individuals, so long as the business was operational and had paid employees on February 15, 2020. Some businesses with multiple locations, each having less than 500 employees, may also qualify (but generally, this is limited to hospitality businesses with a primary NAICS code starting with “72” – Accommodation and Food Service).
  2. Borrowers must make a good faith certification that the PPP loan is necessary due to the uncertainty of the current economic conditions caused by COVID-19.
  3. PPP loans will be issued through regular lenders who already handle SBA loans, in addition to new lenders electing to provide PPP loans. Your regular bank is likely to offer PPP loans.
  4. The amount of the PPP loan is at the borrower’s choice, but the maximum amount of a PPP loan is 2.5 times the business’ average monthly payroll expenses for the past year, up to $10 million.
  5. Most of the usual “red tape” for SBA loans has been waived, including determinations of borrower eligibility and creditworthiness. PPP loans are non-recourse, and require no personal guarantees. There are no fees, a maximum interest rate of 4%, and all payments are deferred for 6-12 months.
  6. PPP loans can be used for:
    a. “Payroll Costs” including salaries, vacation and sick leave, health insurance, retirement benefits, and state and local payroll taxes. But “Payroll Costs” does not include compensation for an employee’s annual salary in excess of $100,000. There is some uncertainty about this limitation, but indications are that for highly compensated individuals the first $100,000 in salary can be paid with PPP loan funds.
    b. Rent.
    c. Utilities.
    d. Interest on any debt obligations incurred before February 15, 2020.
  7. The total amount of the PPP loan funds that are used for these approved categories within the eight-week period following loan origination would be forgiven, and the forgiven amount is not taxable. In effect, the PPP loan turns into a tax free grant to the extent that it was used for the approved purposes.
  8. Businesses may elect to use PPP loan funds for other purposes not within the approved categories, but funds spent for “non-approved” uses will not be forgiven and the loan must be repaid with interest.
  9. There is an additional important condition that the PPP borrower must maintain the same number of full time employees, and cannot reduce salaries more than 25%, through June 2020. Otherwise portions of the PPP loan may not be forgiven. If the borrower terminated employees or made salary reductions greater than 25% between February 15, 2020 and April 26, 2020, as long as the employer hires back the same number of employees and restores salaries to sufficient levels by June 30, 2020, the PPP loan funds used for approved purposes will still be forgiven.
  10. One further cautionary note is that borrowers receiving a PPP loan are not be eligible for several of the other tax credits, refunds or deferrals available under the CARES Act, so consulting a tax professional about the value of those benefits to particular businesses would be advisable.

The PPP loan portion of the CARES Act is plainly designed to stem the layoffs and furloughs that have been rampant in the wake of the economic seizure that has been imposed by federal, state and local governments’ “stay at home” guidelines and orders intended to stem the COVID-19 outbreak. This can benefit both employees and employers who need to adapt their businesses to the unsettled conditions in which we find ourselves.

Business owners – from sole proprietors to employers of 499 employees (and some with more) should explore very seriously, very quickly, the virtual giveaway that the PPP loan program represents. If taken, PPP loans demand some care in documenting use of funds to assure compliance with the terms required to be granted forgiveness of the loan and receive the tax-free gift from the U.S. government.

Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys stay attuned to legal developments and the opportunities they create for our business clients. The CARES Act is a big opportunity that should be carefully considered and acted upon promptly.

June 18, 2020 Update: PPP funds remain undistributed, and PPP Loan Applications are currently due by June 30, 2020. See our updated blog posts concerning further developments in the PPP program:

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