The Fair Labor Standards Act is celebrating its 80th birthday. It still produces lengthy court rulings determining what it all means. In this case, the U.S. Court of Appeals says that ESL instructors for a private educational entity are not entitled to overtime.
The case is Fernandez v. Zoni Language Centers, decided on May 26. In this potential class action, the plaintiffs claim they are not receiving the legally-mandated minimum wage or overtime pay. Under the FLSA, bona fide professionals are exempt from the statute's protections. Plaintiffs claim defendants -- who operate private educational facilities -- are not entitled to the exemption from the FLSA’s minimum wage and overtime requirements applicable to teachers working as bona fide professionals, because defendants are not “educational establishment[s],” as required for that exemption to apply. The Court of Appeals (Raggi, Calabresi and Lynch) disagrees, and the claims are dismissed.
Department of Labor regulations define "educational establishment" as "an elementary or secondary school system, an institution of higher education or other educational institution." Since the Zoni Centers are not associated with any public schools, for the defendants to win this case, they must show they fall within the exemption for "other educational institution."
Under a plain language analysis, Zoni Language Centers qualifies under this exemption because its "primary purpose is to provide English-language instruction to students using prescribed books in a traditional classroom environment,' such that "plaintiffs were engaged in the transmittal of knowledge to students in much the same way as primary and secondary school teachers, except that plaintiffs' students were adults, not children, and the knowledge conveyed to them focused on a single subject, the English language." These educational centers also have national certifications and state licensure.
The Court of Appeals finds the purpose of DOL regulations compel this conclusion, as the bona fide professional exemption was intended to exempt workers who "typically earned salaries well above the minimum wage, and ... were presumed to enjoy other compensatory privileges .. setting them apart from the nonexempt workers entitled to overtime pay." Plaintiffs earned more money per hour than the minimum wage worker, and the Court says it "must limit the application of FLSA exemptions 'to those establishments plainly and unmistakably within their terms and spirit.'"