9th Circuit Decision Requires Employers to Reevaluate Expense Reimbursement Procedures
This week, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that an employer’s per diem expense reimbursement payments functioned as compensation for work rather than business expense reimbursements. As a result, the employer was required to factor those per diem payments into employees’ “regular rate of pay.” An employee’s regular rate of pay is used to calculate overtime under the FLSA and California Labor Code. It is also used to calculate double-time, sick leave, and reporting time pay in California. The decision could have devastating consequences for California employers with flat-sum and/or automatic expense reimbursement procedures.
The Case: Clarke v. AMN Services
AMN is a healthcare staffing company that places hourly-paid clinicians on short-term assignments. Each week AMN paid traveling clinicians a per diem amount to reimburse them for the cost of meals, incidentals, and housing while working over 50 miles away from their homes. AMN did not report these payments as wages and classified them as tax-exempt.
AMN used a number of factors to calculate the per diem payment, including the extent to which clinicians worked their scheduled shifts. Notably, under the per diem policy, the payments could decrease if clinicians worked less than their scheduled shifts, and work hours in excess of those scheduled could be “banked” and used to “offset” missed or incomplete shifts. Additionally, AMN provided “local” clinicians per diem payments under the same policy, but such payments were reported as taxable wages.
The Ninth Circuit determined that these characteristics indicate that the per diem payments to traveling clinicians functioned as compensation for hours worked, and not expense reimbursements. The court relied heavily on AMN’s decision to pay both local and traveling clinicians under the same per diem policy but treat payments to local clinicians as wages. The Court also noted that “AMN offers no explanation for why ‘banked hours’ should effect” per diem payments, and found “the only reason to consider ‘banked hours’ in calculating” per diems is to compensate clinicians for hours worked.
Implications for CA Employers
Many California employers implement a business expense reimbursement policy aiming to fully reimburse employees for all expenses they incur, while (1) minimizing administrative burdens and expenses, and/or (2) avoiding the creation of preferential work assignments and a perverse incentive for employees to “incur” expenses.
The process of submitting, reviewing and processing expense reimbursements is cumbersome. It also can be a liability minefield. Generally, an employer must reimburse an employee when it knows or had reason to know the employee incurred a necessary business expense. Thus, employers may be obligated to reimburse employees even if they do not actually request reimbursement. This issue leads some employers to adopt a flat-sum reimbursement policy in which the amounts paid are at least partially fixed, such as AMN’s per diem policy. And they often issue these payments automatically, without obtaining documentation of the expenses from employees. This issue is especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic because California employers often use fixed expense reimbursement amounts for computer and other expenses for remote workers.
The Clarke decision should concern any employer with a business expense policy that includes such flat-sum or automatic reimbursement payments. Significant liability can arise if reimbursement payments, in whole or in part, are deemed to function as wages that must be factored into the regular rate of pay. And, of course, plaintiffs arguing such payments were actually “wages” may then also claim they were not properly reimbursed for their business expenses. Employers should carefully review any flat-sum or automatic reimbursement policies and procedures to ensure that they do not present any of the dangers illustrated in the Clarke decision.