In Pignataro v. Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, Nos. 08-3605 / 08-3825 (3rd Circuit 2010), the Court faced the issue of whether helicopter pilots of the New York and New Jersey Port Authority are exempt, as “professional employees”, from the overtime pay requirements of the Fair Labor Standards Act (the “FLSA”).
In analyzing this issue, the Court noted that, because the alleged FLSA violation-the classification of the pilots as exempt employees- occurred prior to the Department of Labor’s revision of the FLSA regulations in 2004, the Court would apply the pre-2004 version of the regulations. However, the Court indicated that it would likely reach the same results under the current regulations.
As to whether the helicopter pilots are exempt “professional employees”, and thus not entitled to overtime pay, the Court said that this exemption applies to an employee who is determined to be a member of the “learned professions”, as defined by the FLSA regulations (at 29 C.F.R. §§ 541.3 and 541.301). Under those regulations, this determination is based on, among other things, on the employee’s duties. The employee’s primary duties must consist of work requiring knowledge of an advanced type in a field of science or learning customarily acquired by a prolonged course of specialized intellectual instruction and study. This is distinguished from knowledge obtained from a general academic education, an apprenticeship, or training in the performance of routine mental, manual, or physical processes.
The Court found that the qualifications needed to be a helicopter pilot, at least at the New York and New Jersey Port Authority, did not involve the type of knowledge or instruction and study required by the regulations. The instruction for the helicopter pilots took place mostly in the air, and involved passing certain practical and written tests, and otherwise consisted of experience and supervised training. This instruction did not include any specialized intellectual study in the classroom or result in the receipt of an academic degree. The Court concluded that the helicopter pilots did not qualify as “learned professionals” (or “professional employees’), and were therefore entitled to overtime pay under the FLSA.
Comment: Apparently, sophisticated technical skills acquired through rigorous experience-such as the skills needed by a helicopter pilot -is not a substitute for classroom study when it comes to being treated as a member of the “learned professions” for purposes of the FLSA.