Some practical guidelines regarding continuing education expenses
By Julie Whiteley, BS, RDH
We all know that as licensed health-care providers, we have an obligation to obtain at least the minimum number of continuing education requirements to meet our state regulations. We also have the responsibility to keep our knowledge current in order to provide the best care for our patients. Employers are responsible to ensure that all employees have current licenses in good standing, but issues of reimbursement and compensation for continuing education can be a gray area.
I was recently asked, “Is it mandatory to be paid for office meetings and continuing education courses? Can the practice owner pick and choose who is reimbursed, or must the same rules be applied across the board?” Ask 10 hygienists how their practices handle this and you’re likely to get 10 different answers. The purpose of this article is to provide some information to make this process more straightforward for everyone.
To understand the regulations regarding compensation for training, it’s important to discuss the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The FLSA establishes federal minimum wage, overtime pay, recordkeeping, and child labor laws. These regulations are administered and enforced by the Department of Labor (DOL) through the Wage and Hour Division (WHD).
The FLSA also classifies jobs as “exempt” from minimum wage and overtime regulations, or “nonexempt.” Generally, exempt employees are paid a fixed salary that does not change with regard to hours worked or not worked. Nonexempt employees are paid based on the number of hours worked and are entitled to overtime pay where applicable. Classification of positions is determined by FLSA criteria, not the employer or employee preference.
Keep in mind there are federal laws, but many states have additional regulations that can be even stricter, and those supersede the federal laws. Additionally, there may be office-specific policies or contracts (written or implied) between employees and employers. Those policies or contracts can never be less than what the law of your state allows but may be considered just as binding.
Paid hourly rate during course?
The answer to this is: It depends. Employment law can be less than crystal clear at times. Laws can be interpreted and applied differently based on specific circumstances that can be varied. In most but not all cases, hygienists are classified as nonexempt, hourly employees. For the purpose of this article, we will discuss continuing education and training pay practices for nonexempt employees.
According to the FLSA, if all of the following guidelines are met, time spent at meetings, lectures, and training does not have to be paid.
• Attendance is outside of the employee’s regular working hours.
• Attendance is voluntary.
• The course or meeting is not directly related to the employee’s job.
• The employee does not perform any productive work during such attendance.
With respect to continuing education, if an employee selects a course needed for his or her license requirements and the employer does not require attendance at that particular course, the time is not compensable to the employee. Think of it this way. By law, as a licensed registered dental hygienist, you’re required to obtain continuing education and to have a valid license to practice in your state. This is your responsibility as the license holder in order to be employable. The employer does not have an obligation to assist you with that requirement or to compensate you for the time spent in continuing education classes. Your license is not a requirement of a particular employer; having a valid license is necessary in order to practice in your state. With that, the responsibility is on you as the licensee.
Conversely, there is training that the law requires employers to provide, for example, OHSA or HIPAA training. In those cases, as a business owner, the employer bears the responsibility of providing the training, and the training time must be paid. Additionally, for other courses that your employer requires you to attend, even if you earn CEs, you are to be compensated if you are classified as an hourly employee under the FLSA.
What about meetings?
If attendance at a meeting is optional, the meeting is not held during normal work times, no work is performed during the meeting, and it’s not job related, employers are not required to pay for time spent at the meetings. If, however, the meetings are mandatory or it is implied that failure to attend could impact the employee’s job, the time spent in the meeting is to be paid.
One thing to be aware of is that it may not be against the law in your state for an employer to pay a lower hourly wage for training, courses, and meetings or other work that is different from someone’s regular work. This falls under the category of differential pay, and it must be a written policy that is reviewed with employees ahead of time.
Also, pay cannot fall under the minimum wage for a state. I do not recommend this practice as it often demotivates employees, fosters an environment where people feel devalued, and might create negative connotations around training and development.
Employers should ask themselves, “How much of a contribution and value will team members add at a meeting when their pay is essentially being docked to attend? If it’s important for someone to attend, is it a good practice to pay them less than they’re worth for their time and contribution?”
Think of it this way. By law, as a licensed registered dental hygienist, you’re required to obtain continuing education and to have a valid license to practice in your state. This is your responsibility as the license holder in order to be employable.
Who pays for the course?
The FLSA does not have any laws regarding who is to pay tuition for courses, even those required by the employer. Some states, such as California, have laws that require an employer to cover the cost of a required course. It is advisable to check with your state’s department of labor for specifics regarding your state. However, it’s important to recognize that an employer paying tuition is not a factor in determining if there is a legal duty for the employer to pay for hours at the course as hours worked. This is determined separately in accordance with the laws described above.
Important considerations include:
• State law—Individual states may have additional rules that are stricter (more generous to the employee) and those must be followed. You can find each state’s department of labor offices through an online search.
• Federal and state laws—These laws outline the minimal requirements of employers. It is important for employers to stay competitive with compensation practices in order to attract and retain the best talent. Providing a mutually beneficial benefit, such as assistance with training and education where not required (even with a set limit per year), can have a positive impact without a large cost for the employer. In fact, doing so can foster a more positive work environment. When employees feel recognized and rewarded, even in small ways, morale is positively affected. Additionally, investment in staff promotes more knowledgeable employees, which reflects well on the office.
• Good business practices—These tell us that all office policies must be written and available for all employees to reference. Remember that these policies, whether written or implied by such factors as precedent, can be as binding as law. Further, these policies must be reviewed when hiring or as soon as a policy is developed, whichever comes first. Discussing matters of policy is always best before a situation arises.
• Seeking employment—When job hunting, it is important to clarify the policy of your prospective employer, and it is recommended that these policies be in writing. When you’re considering an offer, consider the total compensation. For example, look at the hourly rate along with any benefits. Sometimes an hourly rate may not be as high as you would like, but when benefits are factored in, the compensation may even out or be even more beneficial in the long run.
• Fairness—Policies should be applied in a manner that is consistent and fair across the board. Outside of what the law requires, federal law does not require employers to provide the same benefits to all employees. They do, however, need to be applied in a nondiscriminatory manner. For example, there may be different policies with increased benefits for employees who are scheduled over a certain number of hours per week, or who have been at the office longer. It is required that the criteria be consistently applied for all similar employees and be nondiscriminatory.
• Overtime pay—When applicable, compensable time spent in seminars and meetings is subject to overtime pay in accordance with state and federal laws. In most states, this is a rate of time and one half someone’s hourly rate for any hours worked over 40 in a seven-day period. In other states, such as California, the overtime rate is applied on any workday that exceeds eight hours. In cases where there is differential pay for different work performed, the overtime is based on a weighted average of the hours worked that period.
As health-care providers, it is important that we stay current with our educational requirements and keep our licenses in good standing. Some of this may be at a cost to us. This is part of the responsibility of maintaining a license and being employable. Failure to remain in compliance with licensing renewal requirements may result in fines, suspension of license, lost work time, and potential loss of license. It is equally important that we have a solid understanding of our rights and responsibilities. It is imperative to have knowledge of the regulations in your state, and an open dialogue between employers and employees regarding expectations and written policies.
Editor’s note: This article is for general informational purposes only and does not provide legal advice. You should contact an attorney or your state labor board to obtain advice with respect to an issue or problem.
Julie Whiteley, BS, RDH, is certified in human resources. She holds degrees in business administration and dental hygiene, and has worked extensively in both fields. She is on the faculty of Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences University in Boston. Julie bridges her knowledge and experience from business, clinical hygiene, and teaching to deliver information and programs that enhance dental practices. Contact her at [email protected].
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