(CN) – The state of Washington may be liable for not paying overtime to social workers, the 9th Circuit ruled Friday, finding that the job is not exempt from federal labor laws because it requires only “general academic training.”
To sidestep the Fair Labor Standards Act and qualify for its “learned professional” exemption from paying workers overtime after 40 hours, social workers with the state’s Department of Social and Health Services would need to go through a longer, more rigorous training regime, the Seattle-based appellate court found.
Jobs subject to the exemption require “advanced knowledge customarily acquired by a prolonged course of specialized intellectual instruction.” Social workers in Washington need an undergraduate degree in one of many fields or “sufficient coursework,” according to the ruling.
The U.S. Department of Labor sued the state in 2006 after employee complaints spurred an investigation. U.S. District Judge Benjamin Settle dismissed the case on summary judgment, finding the position’s requirements sufficiently demanding to qualify for the exemption. The 9th Circuit reversed unanimously.
“The requirement of a degree or sufficient coursework in any of several fields broadly related to a position suggests that only general academic training is necessary, with the employer relying upon apprenticeship and experience to develop the advanced skills necessary for effective performance as a social worker,” wrote U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel, joining the 9th Circuit’s three-judge panel by designation from the Northern District of California.
“We conclude that DSHS has not met its burden of showing that its social workers come within the ‘learned professional’ exemption, and that the District Court should not have granted summary judgment in its favor,” Fogel added.