Social Workers Are Not Exempt as "Learned Professionals" Under FLSA

February 22, 2012
By Parker | Scheer | Lagomarsino on February 22, 2012 3:00 PM |

The Ninth Circuit holds that social workers, employed by the State of Washington, are not "learned professionals" as their position does not require a degree in a specific discipline. Social workers are thus covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and entitled to overtime compensation for all hours worked in excess of 40 hours in a week.

The DSHS is a public agency created by the Washington legislature to "integrate and coordinate all those activities involving provision of care for individuals who, as a result of their economic, social or health condition, require financial assistance, institutional care, rehabilitation or other social and health services." Wash. Rev. Code § 43.20A.10. Under DSHS policy, individuals hired into social worker 2 and social worker 3 positions have to have attained rigorous educational qualifications, which include having a bachelor's degree or higher in one or more degree areas - social services, human services, behavioral serviced, or an allied field - from an accredited institution. That because of these educational qualifications, as well as formal training required by DSHS, individuals hired into these two positions qualified as "learned professionals" exempt from FLSA overtime protection.

In 2005, the DOL issued an opinion letter stating that social worker positions that required "a master's degree in social work, drug and alcohol, education, counseling, psychology, or criminal justice," were "learned professionals" exempt from FLSA protection, while social caseworker positions that required only "a bachelor's degree in social sciences" were not. In 2006, the Department of Labor (DOL) received a complaint from a DSHS employee. After an investigation, the DOL investigator concluded that the social worker 2 and social worker 3 positions were not "learned professionals" exempt from FLSA overtime protection and thus workers in these positions were entitled to overtime pay.

On a DSHS appeal, the district court disagreed with the DOL investigator's conclusion, and held the social worker 2 and social worker 3 positions were "learned professionals" exempt from FLSA overtime protection. The district court stated that the DSHS's requirements were "plainly more exacting than a bachelor's degree in 'any field' as stated in 29 [C.F.R] § 541.301(d), and more exacting than the caseworker's requirements outlined in the Department of Labor's 2005 opinion letter." The district court also concluded that DSHS's requirement that social workers have at least 18 months of experience in social work and that they be required to complete additional formal training weighed in favor of a finding of specialized training. Summary judgment was entered for DSHS. The DOL appealed.

The FLSA includes an exemption from the overtime requirement for "any employee employed in a bona fide executive, administrative, or professional capacity . . . ." 29 U.S.C. § 213(a)(1). To qualify as a "Learned Professional" an employee's primary duty must be the performance of work requiring advanced knowledge in a field of science or learning customarily acquired by a prolonged course of specialized intellectual instruction. This primary duty test includes three elements:

1. The employee must perform work requiring advanced knowledge;
2. The advanced knowledge must be in a field of science or learning; and
3. The advanced knowledge must be customarily acquired by a prolonged course of specialization where specialized academic training is a standard prerequisite for entrance into the profession.

"An employer who claims an exemption from the FLSA bears the burden of demonstrating that such an exemption applies." Klem, 208 F.3d at 1089. "The criteria provided by regulations are absolute and the employer must prove that any particular employee meets every requirement before the employee will be deprived of the protection of the Act." Bothell v. Phase Metrics, Inc., 299 F.3d 1120, 1125 (9th Cir. 2002) (quoting Mitchell v. Williams, 420 F.2d 67, 69 (8th Cir. 1969)

The Ninth Circuit noted that in the 2005 opinion letter, the DOL stated that social worker positions that required "a master's degree in social work, drug and alcohol, education, counseling, psychology, or criminal justice," were "learned professionals" exempt from FLSA protection, while social caseworker positions that required only "a bachelor's degree in social sciences" were not. That while the DSHS's requirement that the social worker 2 and social worker 3 positions required more than a degree "in any field," it did not require a "prolonged course of specialized intellectual study." DSHS's educational requirement may be satisfied by degrees in diverse fields. DSHS also admitted it does not examine an applicant's coursework once it determines that the applicant's degree is within one of those fields. Furthermore, that the DSHS required both positions to participate in a formal training program is not relevant as the regulation states clearly that the FLSA exemption does not apply to "occupations in which most employees have acquired their skill by experience." 29 C.F.R.§ 541.301(d).

The commentary is for educational and commentary purposes only. If you or someone you know are a service industry employer or employee with an FLSA or other employment matter, and would like to be represented by a Nevada attorney, contact our office for a free confidential case review and receive a response within hours. Call Toll Free 866-414-0400.

The posts appearing in this blog are for informational purposes only, and should not be interpreted as providing legal advice, as each matter requires independent legal analysis. Unless otherwise noted, Parker Scheer Lagomarsino is not involved in the representation of any party in any case or other matter discussed on this blog.