Labor & Employment Law Daily Cosmetology students were ‘employees’ for time spent cleaning, doing laundry, and restocking products
Thursday, October 4, 2018

Cosmetology students were ‘employees’ for time spent cleaning, doing laundry, and restocking products

By Ronald Miller, J.D.

Finding that duties involving cleaning, doing laundry, and restocking products in a cosmetology school’s clinic were outside the training or learning situation for cosmetology students, a federal district court in Michigan granted their motion for partial summary judgment that they were “employees” entitled to compensation for performing such tasks. The court observed that an all or nothing determination of employee status was not appropriate in every learning or training situation. Because the students spent a substantial amount of time on cleaning tasks, the court determined that the school took an unfair advantage of their need to complete their education. These tasks were beyond the pale of the contemplated cosmetology education and training the students sought. However, the employer was granted its motion for partial summary judgment that the plaintiffs were students for the remainder of the time they spent in the clinic (Eberline v. Douglas J. Holdings, Inc., October 1, 2018, Levy, J.).

Support staff. The plaintiffs in this case were three former students of affiliated cosmetology schools. They brought this action alleging that they were employees entitled to compensation during the clinical training portion of the curriculum. At the time the students attended the school, it employed support staff as part of its business model. The support staff was broken down into two positions: aesthetics and guest services. Among the duties of the aesthetics personnel was to ensure that the school was clean and materials, including towels and products, were always available. These employees were responsible for keeping the place clean throughout the course of the day, and helping keep up with things such as laundry, any dishes and cleaning.

The guest services team primarily staffed the front desk to greet and assist clients when they came in the door of the clinic. They were also responsible for keeping the waiting area “clean and tidy.” Moreover, they were expected to perform hourly “aesthetic checks,” in which they would tend to guests and “vacuum all rugs and clean the glass at all sets of doors.” Additionally, the work of the support staff was bolstered by a nighttime janitorial service.

The employer also employed licensed cosmetology instructors who oversaw the cosmetology students during their time in the clinic and in the classroom. Instructors would sit in during the student’s consultation with a client and review the student’s performance.

State-mandated curriculum. The employer’s curriculum was based on Michigan state requirements for licensing cosmetologists, and included 1,500 hours in both a clinical and classroom setting. The state-mandated curriculum required students to spend much of their time practicing their skills on clients under instructors’ supervision. Students worked in the clinic throughout their enrollment. However, neither the state-mandated clinical curriculum nor the school’s application of that curriculum included any time in the clinic learning the salon business.

Daily cleaning duties. In addition to completing the required treatments and services found in the curriculum, the students spent a significant amount of time on tasks outside the curriculum, such as cleaning. According to the students, they spent multiple hours cleaning on a slow day and at least half an hour cleaning every day. Students spending this time was not voluntary, but something instructors were encouraged to have the students do. If a student refused to perform an activity directed by an instructor, they would be sent home for the day. Moreover, on Mondays, when the clinic was closed, “it was strictly cleaning.”

Guest services duties. Students would also be assigned to work guest services, where they would greet customers, get guests their preferred coffee, tea, or other beverage, and then sweep or dust. Students were also expected to encourage clients to purchase products used in the clinic. Though not a part of the state-mandated curriculum, making sales pitches was part of the employer’s curriculum. The clinic tracked the student’s per guest numbers of retail sales, and provided incentives to the students who sold the most product.

Primary beneficiary test. The parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment. The dispositive question was whether the plaintiffs were employees while they were students at the school. Here, the court applied the Sixth Circuit’s primary beneficiary test articulated in Solis v. Laurelbrook Sanitarium and Sch Inc.

It is the “economic reality” of the relationship between the parties that determines whether their relationship is one of employment or something else. The Sixth Circuit has instructed that “the proper approach for determining whether an employment relationship exists in the context of a training or learning situation is to ascertain which party derives the primary benefit from the relationship.”

Training or learning situation. Courts must first determine if the complained of activity was within the learning situation. If the activity is within the learning situation, then the primary beneficiary test as articulated in Laurelbrook applies. But if the activity is outside the training or learning situation, then the court must look at whether the employer is taking unfair advantage of the student’s need to complete the internship or educational program. If so, then the student would “qualify as an ‘employee’ for all hours expended in tasks so far beyond the pale of the contemplated internship that it clearly did not serve to further the goals of the internship.”

Applying this framework, the court granted the plaintiffs’ motion finding that they were “employees” when they performed duties such as cleaning, doing laundry and restocking products. Here, the students showed that the specific manual activities of cleaning, doing the laundry, and restocking products were outside the training and learning situation based on the state-mandated curriculum requirements, the school’s curriculum, the lack of supervision during those activities, the lackadaisical recordkeeping, and the fact that support staff was also hired to complete these tasks. Moreover, the evidence demonstrated that the students received no instruction on cleaning, doing the laundry, or restocking shelves.

Accordingly, the court granted the students’ motion for partial summary judgment with respect to their status as “employees” with respect to the cleaning, laundry, and restocking tasks.

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