Pastor-pressured volunteers are not FLSA employees at for-profit restaurant

What was DOL thinking? That the FLSA applied to volunteers whom a pastor spiritually "coerced" to work at a church-owned restaurant, even though they didn't expect payment? Not so, says the 6th Circuit. Acosta v. Cathedral Buffet (6th Cir 04/16/2018) [PDF].

The Department of Labor sued Cathedral Buffet claiming violations of the minimum wage requirement of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The trial court held a bench trial and found in favor of DOL; the 6th Circuit reversed.

No expectation of being paid: Cathedral Buffet is a for-profit restaurant whose sole shareholder is a non-profit religious organization. DOL's position was that the restaurant's "volunteers" were actually employees. Volunteers performed many of the same restaurant-related tasks as employees: cleaning, washing dishes, serving cake, chopping vegetables, and manning the cash register. However, employees received an hourly wage; volunteers did not. The 6th Circuit held that the volunteers could not be classified as employees because they did not expect to receive any compensation. The trial court improperly applied the economic realities test, which can come into play only after first determining that workers expected remuneration.

Spiritual coercion: DOL also argued that the volunteers were coerced into working, and that coercion can satisfy the expectation-of-remuneration requirement. But the coercion in this case was spiritual (pressure from a church pastor) rather than economic, so the workers were not employees.

A concurring opinion argued that DOL's "premise—namely, that the Labor Act authorizes the Department to regulate the spiritual dialogue between pastor and congregation—assumes a power whose use would violate the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment."