Should Employees Be Compensated for Professional Training?

Should Employees Be Compensated for Professional Training?

Recently, the Department of Labor (DOL) issued an opinion letter regarding the question of paying employees for taking classes related to the retention of their professional licenses. The basic question was: Is it possible for employees to be compensated for their time spent taking professional education courses? Although it is possible for employees to be compensated, under most circumstances employees are not compensated for time spent on professional education. The letter goes into considerable detail, outlining six hypothetical scenarios in which employees receive professional education.

The letter is addressed to a nonprofit hospice with nursing staff. The nursing and other professional staff receive funds from their employer for the completion of professional education courses, but it is not mandatory that those funds be spent on continuing education. The employer does not require that its staff take continuing education courses, but failure to take them could lead to loss of licensure of the employee. The employer does pay its employees for time spent at continuing education courses that employees are required to attend. Continuing education classes attended voluntarily are not compensated. If a continuing education class is taken during working hours, the employer requires the employee to take paid time off or use vacation time.

As part of the answer to the query from the employer, the DOL cites Wage and Hour Division (WHD) regulations regarding training sessions. The letter says:


Generally, WHD regulations provide that “[a]ttendance at lectures, meetings, and similar activities need not be counted as working time if the following four criteria are met”:
(a) Attendance is outside the employee’s regular working hours;
(b) Attendance is in fact voluntary;
(c) The course, lecture, or meeting is not directly related to the employee’s job; and
(d) The employee does not perform any productive work during such attendance.

Although there are exceptions, they are rare. In general, time spent on continuing education classes is not counted as work time. The questioner outlined six hypothetical scenarios, however, to further clarify this rule.

In the first scenario:

Nurse W submits a request, which is approved, to use her education funds for an on-demand webinar directly related to her job and also has [continuing education credits] that can go towards her licensing [continuing education] requirement. Although she can view it anytime, she decides to do so on her off-work time. Is it permissible to treat this as unpaid time?

The answer is yes, it is unpaid time.

In the second scenario:


Accounting clerk L submits a request, which is approved, to use his education funds for an on-demand webinar directly related to his job, but has no [continuing education] component. Although he could view it at any time, he decides to do so on his off-work time. Is it permissible to treat this as unpaid time?

Oddly enough, there is insufficient information provided in the example to provide an answer. Although it would seem that this scenario is the same as the previous one, in this case more information is needed by the DOL to provide an answer.

In the third scenario:

Accounting clerk M submits a request, which is approved, to use his education funds for an on-demand webinar directly related to his job, but has no continuing education component. Although he could view it any time, he does so during his work hours. Is it permissible to require him to substitute [paid time off] for time spent watching the webinar?

The answer is that while it is work time under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and thus compensable, an employer can establish a rule prohibiting such viewing during work hours.

In the fourth scenario:


Accounting clerk O submits a request, which is approved, to use his education funds for an on-demand webinar that is not directly related to his job and has no [continuing education] component. Although he could view it any time, he does so during his work hours. Is it permissible to require him to substitute [paid time off] for the time spent watching the webinar?

The answer is that the time spent viewing the webinar counts as work time. Once again, the employer can establish a policy against such viewing during work hours.

In the fifth scenario:


Nurse X submits a request, which is approved, to use her education funds for an on-demand webinar that isn’t directly related to her job, but has [continuing education credits] that can go towards her licensing [continuing education] requirement. Although she could view it at any time, she chooses to do so during her regular work hours. Is it permissible to require her to substitute [paid time off] for the time spent watching the webinar?

Once again, the key to this scenario is that Nurse X watches the webinar during her regular work hours, which makes her time compensable under the FLSA. Also once again, the employer can institute a policy against such viewing.

In the sixth scenario:


Nurse Y submits a request, which is approved, to use her education funds for an in-person, weekend conference that covers several topics, some of which directly relate to her job, but others don’t. [Continuing education credits] are available. She has to travel out of town to attend. Both the travel and the conference cut across her normal work hours, but the actual conference occurs on days she doesn’t normally work. Does she have to be paid? If so, can we require her to substitute [paid time off] for the time spent traveling and attending?

The answer here is that she need not be paid, since she did not perform any productive work while attending the conference. Also, the travel and training are voluntary, another sign that the employer need not pay her for the time spent at the conference or traveling.

Conclusion
Time voluntarily spent at a continuing education event is typically not compensable, unless it is spent during regular work hours. To avoid paid training, an employer can establish a rule that employees are not to attend webinars or other continuing education classes while at work.

About The Author

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Eric Howard is a legal editor who lives in Los Angeles.

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