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The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) requires that, subject to certain exceptions, every employer pay its employees a specified minimum wage and time-and-a-half for hours worked over 40 in a workweek. 29 U.S.C.S. §§ 206-207. The FLSA defines an employee as any individual employed by an employer. 29 U.S.C.S. § 203(e)(1). The United States Supreme Court has distinguished between employees, who are entitled to wages under the FLSA, and trainees, who usually are not. Persons who receive on-the-job training, but are not paid during the training period, are not entitled to wages under the FLSA. The Department of Labor has developed a six-part test for determining whether trainees qualified as employees under the FLSA.
Plaintiff-Appellant Rhonda Nesbitt was a former massage therapy student who attended a for-profit vocational school operated by Defendants-Appellees. Defendants’ curriculum included classroom and clinical education required for one to become licensed as a massage therapist. The clinical component included approximately 100, fifty-minute massages, which counted toward the minimum clinical hours necessary for students to acquire their state licenses. The massages were performed at Steiner facilities on members of the public, who paid discounted rates for the massages. Plaintiff alleged that defendants profited from the clinics with the students as free labor. Consequently, she brought her class-action suit under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The district court granted summary judgment in favor of defendants, holding that the students were not employees of the schools under the FLSA. Plaintiff appealed.
Was the plaintiff qualified as an “employee” under the FLSA?
The court affirmed with the district court’s finding, and held that the plaintiff, including the students she sought to represent were not employees under the FLSA. According to the court, the training received by the students was similar to training in vocational school because their training was "literally 'vocational school' training." Plaintiff and the other students were required to complete a minimum number of clinical hours to acquire their state licenses. The training they received at defendant schools was instrumental to that goal, and the classroom and clinical components prepared them to be massage therapists. Moreover, the court held that the students clearly were not entitled to a job upon completion of their program with defendant. Students were aware that defendants operated schools, not massage therapy businesses, and therefore there could not be any expectation of full-time employment following completion of their training. Defendant was not an employer of massage therapists, and after the students completed their educational program, they would have to seek employment elsewhere. The court further held that both the students and the defendant understood that the students were not entitled to wages for their time spent training. Not only did the students receive and sign enrollment agreements that confirmed they were enrolling in vocational programs that would not provide them with wages, but it would be illegal to pay the unlicensed students a wage before they completed their training and state licensing requirements.