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Must you pay workers for time spent learning English?

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in Firing,Human Resources

If you have non-English speaking employees, you may be making efforts to help improve their language skills. But in which cases must you pay employees for that training time?

The federal regulations interpreting the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) set pretty clear guidelines on that issue. The FLSA rules say “attendance at lectures, meetings, training programs and similar activities need not be counted as working time only if four criteria are met”:

  1. Training is done outside the employee’s regular working hours.
  2. Attendance/participation is voluntary.
  3. The training is not directly related to the employee’s job.
  4. The employee doesn’t perform any productive work during the training or meeting.

A recent U.S. Labor Department opinion letter tackled a sticky pay-for-training issue: A restaurant that didn’t require English proficiency on the job encouraged workers to learn the language at an on-site program. When some workers took the materials home to study, the question arose: Is that at-home study time compensable under the FLSA?

The Labor Department, weighing those four rules, said no because the studying was done outside regular work hours, was voluntary, was general in scope (not related to the person’s job) and no productive work was done.

While the employer in this case wasn’t on the hook, such determinations aren’t always clear-cut. But typically, the rule of thumb is that employees who take on-site language courses are kept on the clock while they attend class. And workers who opt to take ESL classes off-site earn tuition reimbursement.

Quick-study language learning

Some employers who don’t have the time or effort for formal English-language programs are turning to creative strategies to improve employees’ language skills. Two examples:

1. Language “huddles.” Supervisors and co-workers can lead “Language Huddles,” which are quick 10-minute daily language lessons given to small groups of non-English speaking workers. Example: The National Restaurant Association worked with the Daily Dose Learning Systems ( to create dozens of different “Language Huddle” lessons on topics like food-expiration dates and greeting customers.

2. Flashback learning. In a move reminiscent of child-teaching techniques, some employers develop English-Spanish (or other language) flashcards that feature industry-specific words that aren’t part of the traditional language study programs. Other employers use instructional videos with English or Spanish voiceovers that cover critical work site procedures, such as handling hazardous chemicals.

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