Q. A client of my company asked whether it could offer production bonuses to our employees who deliver their work product prior to the deadline. Does the FLSA require my company to account for these third-party bonuses when calculating the regular rate of pay for overtime purposes?

A. The answer to your question depends on the particular circumstances, according to the Third Circuit. In a case of first impression, Secretary U.S. Department of Labor v. Bristol Excavating, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals addressed the question of whether an employer must treat bonuses provided by third parties as “remuneration for employment” when calculating employees’ overtime rate of pay.

The defendant in the case, a small excavation company, contracted with a natural gas company to provide equipment, labor, and other services at a number of drill sites in Pennsylvania. At the drill sites, the defendant’s employees frequently worked twelve-hour shifts, often for two-week periods without a day off. The natural gas company maintained a bonus program by which its own employees received “Pacesetter” bonuses for completing their work quickly, along with other safety and efficiency-related bonuses. Following inquiries by the defendant’s employees, the gas company offered to extend the program to the defendant’s employees and the defendant acquiesced. The defendant agreed to handle the administrative chores necessary for its employees to receive the bonuses, specifically, by rolling the bonuses into its regular payroll process and distributing payment to its employees after making the routine payroll deductions. However, the defendant did not include the bonus payments from the gas company when calculating the regular rate of pay for overtime purposes.

The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) audited the defendant’s offices as part of a routine inspection to assure that it was properly calculating overtime compensation. The auditor determined that the bonuses should be added to the calculation of the employees’ regular rate of pay. When the company refused, the DOL filed suit, alleging that the company violated the FLSA’s overtime provisions.

Under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), employers must pay employees one-and-a-half times their regular rate of pay for all hours worked above 40 in a work week. “Regular rate” includes “all remuneration for employment paid to, or on behalf of, the employee.” However, “remuneration for employment” is not defined in the overtime provisions or elsewhere in the FLSA.

The DOL asserted that employers must include bonuses from third parties in the regular rate of pay when calculating overtime pay, regardless of what the employer and employee may have agreed. Agreeing with the Department of Labor, the district court concluded that the incentive bonuses should have been included in the regular rate of pay because they were remuneration for employment and did not qualify for any of the statutory exemptions.

On appeal, however, the Third Circuit decided otherwise. The court held that a third-party payment qualifies as a remuneration for employment only when the employer and employee have effectively agreed that it will. In the absence of an explicit agreement between the parties, the courts should look for an implicit agreement based on a holistic consideration of the particular facts of each case. Factors for the court to consider include: (i) whether the specific requirements for receiving the payment are known by the employees in advance of their performing the relevant work; (ii) whether the payment itself is for a reasonably specific amount; and (iii) whether the employer’s facilitation of the payment is significantly more than serving as a pass through vehicle. The more involved an employer becomes in facilitating the bonus or dictating its terms, “the clearer it becomes that the employer is invested in the arrangement in a way that could be called an implicit agreement with the employees.”

With these points in mind, if your company does not wish to include third-party bonuses in the regular rate of pay calculation for overtime purposes, the employer should have the employee agree in writing that such bonuses do not qualify as remuneration for employment. In addition, employers should analyze each payment carefully to ensure that it satisfies the Third Circuit test. In any event, the less involvement the company has in facilitating bonus payments, the better, given that “an employer’s role in initiating, designing, and managing the incentive bonus program will likely be of high importance.” We recommend consulting with counsel about how the Third Circuit’s decision in Bristol Excavating applies to your specific situation.