Jottings By An Employer's Lawyer

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

The Law of Unintended Consequences - From a DOL Opinion Letter to the Demise of a Liberal Arts Education


Ok, so that's a little over the top -- to extrapolate from one wage and hour opinion letter to the general decline of broad based liberal arts educations. But maybe I react that way because of the deep concerns of my mother (who obtained her doctorate in her early 60's) about the growing trend to force students into "technical" training as opposed to a more broad based education.

It came to mind this morning when I read the latest opinion letter (FLSA 2005-50) issued by the DOL under the FLSA, this one opining on the application of the learned professional exemption to social workers and caseworkers. The bottom line -- the position that requires a master's degree in social work, drug and alcohol, education, counseling, psychology, or criminal justice, meets the third prong of the primary duty test under the learned professional exemption, 29 C.F.R. 541.301(a), "the advanced knowledge must be customarily acquired by a prolonged course of specialized intellectual instruction.” By contrast, the position that requires only a bachelors degree in the "social sciences" does not "constitute the 'specialized' academic training necessary to qualify an occupation for the learned professional exemption."

Although it is somewhat of a stretch, it is not too far afield to think that the result of such opinions (and the underlying regulation), will be to push employers to require more specialized fields of study at an earlier stage, which seems likely to place the liberal arts education of times past under even more pressure.

Iseek's description of a liberal arts education is typical of many:
A liberal arts education refers to studies in a college or university intended to provide general knowledge and develop intellectual capacities. A liberal arts education prepares students to work in a variety of jobs. This is different from other types of education where students develop professional or vocational skills for a specific job.
The type of education that many (including me) would believe is the best course, but clearly one that does not coincide with obtaining a learned professional exemption.

That exemption may become more important given the DOL's off-hand dismissal of the applicability of the other two primary white collar exemptions for the social worker and case worker positions:
Since the employees in question do not supervise other employees and their work is not directly related to the management or general business operations of the agency or its customers, these employees cannot qualify for either the executive or administrative exemption.
The use of the "not directly related to the management or general business operations" is clearly a battleground for white collar exemptions in the future. A future that may well be populated by less broadly educated individuals.

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