Actual language in law matters more than its interpretation

Opinion letters from agencies like the Dept. of Labor provide employers with helpful guidance. But beware, they aren’t the be-all and end-all for wage and hour law.

Relying too heavily on opinion letters can be a big mistake, as one employer learned after a recent lawsuit involving unpaid rest breaks.

No explanation for exemption

In Pilmenstein v. Devereux Cleo Wallace, an employee sued her employer because she didn’t receive compensated rest breaks during her shifts, as the state required for workers in her industry.

The employer’s defense was that it was exempt from this requirement, based on its interpretation of the language in two opinion letters from the state department of labor.

However, a district court ruled in favor of the employee. And its decision held up on appeal. Though the opinion letters seemed to imply that the employer was exempt from the rule, the letters contained no clear rationale for this conclusion.

As the appeals court said, the opinion letters were simply “interpretations” of existing regs, and the language in the actual law was clear that paid rest breaks were required. The employer is now on the hook for back wages.

This case serves as a reminder not to rely solely on opinion letters when paying employees. Closely review the actual terms of the regs first.

Cite: Pilmenstein v. Devereux Cleo Wallace, No. 19CA2051, Colorado Court of Appeals, Division VI, 4/29/21.