Help Wanted: Airline training pay complicated

As long as a worker’s pay for all

As long as a worker’s pay for all hours worked in a week equals at least the federal hourly minimum wage, an airline wouldn’t violate U.S. labor law by not paying for extra time spent in training. Above: A ground crew member prepares a plane for takeoff on July 22, 2013 in Long Beach, Calif. (Credit: Bloomberg / Patrick T. Fallon)

Carrie Mason-Draffen

Newsday columnist Carrie Mason Draffen Carrie Mason-Draffen

Mason-Draffen, a business reporter, writes a column about workplace issues.

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DEAR CARRIE: I work for a major airline that requires its employees to complete online training programs monthly. It's a way to keep us up to date on company and federal guidelines. A program can take from 15 minutes to an hour to complete. And some months we must cover three to four programs. In the past, we worked with a company trainer and were paid for the time. But now the airline refuses to pay us for the training time and advises us to complete the programs during our shifts or at home on our personal computer. But many employees are part-time and don't have enough down time to complete the training. We are covered by a union contract, but it does not address this issue because in the past we were paid. Is our employer required to pay us for time spent completing these programs? -- Unpaid Training

DEAR UNPAID: Because you work in the airline industry, your employer may not have to pay you for the training time, even if you are an hourly employee. "It's Complicated," to borrow the title of the Meryl Streep movie. Here is how your situation sorts out:

Normally, hourly employees have to be paid for all the time they work. And the training you describe would be considered hours worked because it isn't voluntary.

But here's the rub: As long as your pay for all the hours you work during the week, including the training, equals at least the hourly minimum wage, the airline wouldn't be violating federal labor law by not paying you for the extra time, said Irv Miljoner, who heads the local U.S. Labor Department office.

"We're only assessing compliance with minimum wage," he said.

His office enforces the current $7.25 an hour federal minimum. New York State's minimum is $8.

Here's another wrinkle, specifically for airline employees: If the training puts you over 40 hours a week, the airline doesn't have to pay you overtime. That's because airline employees are exempt from overtime, Miljoner said.

By law, most hourly employees who work more than 40 hours a week have to earn at least 1½ times their regular hourly rate for those extra hours. Not so for airline employees.

So the bottom line here is that if you earn at least minimum wage for the week, including the extra hours, your company can legally say the training is on you.

DEAR CARRIE: We let an employee go because he had a second job that was interfering with his work here. His frequent absences made it hard for us to schedule work. We owe him his final paycheck. We asked that he pick it up after he returned our uniforms and keys and signed an employee-termination form, which is standard for us.

To avoid coming into the shop he asked another employee to return his stuff and requested that we mail his check. We have told him he needs to come in and sign the form before getting his check. He said it's illegal to withhold his check. But we want to hold it until he signs the form. Is that legal? -- Parting Ways

DEAR PARTING: Mail the check right away. Otherwise you are setting yourself up for a labor law violation. Here is what the state Labor Department says about handling an employee's final check:

"When employment has ended, the employer must pay the wages by the regular payday for the pay period worked. If asked, the employer must mail the final wages to the employee."

So send the check, registered return receipt, so you can comply with labor law and close the book on this difficult relationship.

For more on federal labor law exemptions and airline workers go to http://1.usa.gov/NsjOKd

For more on state labor laws regarding the timing of an employee's final check go to http://bit.ly/1hqBe37