A federal trial court in Florida recently issued a significant decision on the issue of unpaid trainees under the FLSA, finding that 25 former students of Wolford College were not employees when they participated in a clinical training program as part of the college's Masters of Nurse Anesthesia program.
The 25 students were enrolled in Wolford's College's Master's degree program with the goal of becoming Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetists (CRNAs). While at Wolford, the students participated in a clinical training program supervised by medical doctors and CRNAs with the practice group Collier Anesthesia. The clinical program was required by law for the students to become licensed as CRNAs. Although the students knew that the clinical training was required and unpaid, they later filed a collective action lawsuit against the college, Collier Anesthesia, and two individuals for minimum wage and overtime payments under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The students claimed they were entitled to compensation as employees because the "work" they were required to perform was for the benefit of Collier Anesthesia and was not educational in nature, and because they displaced CRNAs employed by the group.
The court rejected the students' claims, finding that the duties they performed under the supervision of Collier Anesthesia was clinical training performed as students, not employees.
In reaching this decision, the court addressed the DOL's six-factor test, but noted that while such tests are helpful, courts must ensure that the "determination of the relationship does not depend on such isolated factors but rather upon the circumstances of the whole activity." (Citing Rutherford Food Corp. v. McComb, 331 U.S. 722, 730 (1947)). The court found this to be especially true in situations such as the students' where "the hybrid student-trainee nature of Plaintiffs' clinical experience renders rigid adherence to any particular test impractical." Thus, while the court used the factors in the DOL's test as a guide, it ultimately based its determination on the economic realities of the relationship.
The court found that the plaintiffs were students enrolled in a master's degree program at an accredited college and that the graduation requirements for their master's degree required participation in the clinical training, as did the accrediting body for the college. Additionally, the court found that the clinical program gave the students the hands-on training required to obtain their nurse anesthesia master's degrees and to sit for the CRNA certification exam. Furthermore, each student knew and acknowledged that he or she would not be paid during the training, and each received course credit and a grade for the training. Thus, the court found that the training provided clear benefits to students. The court also found that none of the students were entitled to, or thought they would be entitled to, employment at Collier Anesthesia upon completion of the training.
In light of these facts, the court found that the students' performance of various tasks under the supervision of Collier Anesthesia was clinical training performed as students, not as employees, and they were not entitled to compensation under the FLSA.
Employers' Bottom Line: The issue of compensation for trainees and interns has been a hot topic of litigation under the FLSA recently. The court's decision in this case is good news for employers because it demonstrates a common-sense application of the factors considered in determining whether an employment relationship exists as evaluated in the context of the economic realities and overall relationship between the parties.