The U.S. Department of Labor recently announced that it will revive its practice of publishing opinion letters to provide guidance to employers and employees on wage and hour issues. This change (after a seven-year hiatus) reopens the door for employers and employees to gain clarity on important issues affecting the workplace.
What’s an opinion letter?
An opinion letter is an official opinion written by the DOL Wage and Hour Division addressing a specific issue that affects employers and/or employees. An employer or employee can submit a request for an opinion letter on the DOL’s webpage. The DOL will review the request and may issue an opinion letter, if appropriate. (They get lots of them, so every request won’t be a taker!) The request should summarize the relevant facts and pose a question or issue for the DOL to address. The opinion letter is the DOL’s written response to that request, based on the information provided by the requester (who remains anonymous to the public) and any assumptions made by the DOL.
Why would you request an opinion letter?
There are many scenarios where an opinion letter might be helpful to an employer or employee. For example, if an employee switches from nonexempt status to a fluctuating workweek, an employee might seek guidance about whether the employee’s old bonus plan fits into his or her new compensation structure. Or an employer offering online classes to employees in preparation for a voluntary job training class may want to know whether that training time is compensable under the FLSA, as in this 2009 opinion letter.
If you’ve got a question about wage and hour laws and you can’t seem to find the answer in other guidance, requesting an opinion letter might be the right step. It may also be helpful to review past opinion letters. But remember, opinion letters are just guidance—they aren’t the law, and they aren’t binding. When you’re navigating the intricacies of wage and hour issues, opinion letters can be a helpful tool.