Student-employees were not employees

A U.S. District Court has ruled that college students who participated in a clinical training program were not employees for purposes of the minimum wage and overtime requirements of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The students were enrolled in a program at Wolford College to become Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetists (CRNAs), where they participated as interns in a clinical training program supervised by Collier Anesthesia, P.A. Although the students knew this was an unpaid internship program required for graduation, they nonetheless sued Collier for minimum wage and overtime compensation under the FLSA.

Six-factor test

In reaching its decision on the merits of the students’ lawsuit, the court initially looked at the six-factor test set by the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division for assessing a trainee’s status.

1. Training is similar to a vocational school. This factor is satisfied if the training provided was similar to that which would be given in school and was related to the trainees’ course of study. On this issue, the court found there was no real dispute. The clinical training was a key component of the students’ master’s degree program and was required for certification in their chosen field. Although the students claimed that a portion of the time was spent on chores such as stocking carts, filling out forms, and performing other work typically reserved for lower-level technicians, the court found that the chores were at least related to the students’ course of study. Therefore, the court counted this factor as a win for the employer.

2. Training is for the benefit of the trainee. This factor is met if the trainees received academic credit for the work and satisfied a precondition for graduation–and there was no question that both of those requirements were met. So the court chalked up another win for the employer.

3. Trainees do not displace regular employees and work under close supervision. The students claimed that Collier used the students as replacements for regular CRNAs and that they were not closely supervised. To buttress their case, they relied on testimony from a Collier staff member who indicated that regular CRNAs were not scheduled to work so that students could work in their place. According to that staff member, without the students, Collier would have had to hire more CRNAs or increase the hours of existing CRNAs. The students also claimed that they performed a variety of tasks unsupervised, and a former clinical instructor backed up their claim. However, Collier disputed both allegations. To dispute the claim that the students displaced regular staffers, Collier pointed out that its payroll cost remained relatively constant despite fluctuations in the number of student interns. Moreover, Collier contended that to provide the students with necessary clinical training to prepare them for solo practice, some autonomous activity was necessary, but that didn’t mean the students were not closely supervised. Nonetheless, the court found there were genuine questions of fact regarding those issues–and called this factor a draw.

4. No immediate advantage to the employer. The students claimed that the use of students to replace CRNAs benefitted Collier by reducing staffing and payroll. Here again, Collier contended otherwise and argued that the program was a detriment, not a benefit, because the supervision process impeded the work of the supervising doctors and CRNAs. However, here again, the court found genuine issues of fact, and scored the factor a draw.

5. Trainees not entitled to a job on completion of training. It was undisputed that students were not entitled to jobs at Collier on the completion of their clinical training, so this factor represented a clear victory for the employer.

6. Understanding that the trainees are not entitled to wages. The employer won this round as well. The students conceded that that there was no understanding that the students were entitled to wages for their work and that they made pre-employment acknowledgements that they would not be compensated. Therefore, the employer scored a victory on this factor as well.

Although the clinical training program in this case did not clearly and undisputedly meet all six factors, the court concluded that the clinical training was performed as students, not as employees for purposes of the FLSA. While the DOL’s multi-factor test provides helpful guidance, the determination of a trainee’s status does not depend on isolated factors, but on the economic realities of the relationship. Moreover, the court said, “This is especially true where, as here, the hybrid student-trainee nature of the…[ clinical] experience renders rigid adherence to any particular test impractical.” (Schumann v. Collier Anesthesia, P.A., No. 2:12-cv-347-FtM-29CM (M.D. Fla., 5-23-2014.)

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