White Collar Exemptions

Featured on Employment Law This Week: A Texas federal court ruled that the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) does not have the authority to implement new salary thresholds for overtime.

The district judge issued a nationwide preliminary injunction on the DOL’s new rules and the department appealed. The DOL has now asked for an expedited briefing on its appeal to be completed by February 7, followed by oral arguments as soon as possible. But the Trump administration will be in place by then, and that could change the DOL’s position.

Watch the segment below and read our recent post.

Overtime Clock Faces - Abstract PhotoWe have written more than a few times here about the new Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) overtime rules that were scheduled to go into effect on December 1, 2016, dramatically increasing the salary threshold for white collar exemptions.

Most recently, we wrote about the November 22, 2016 nationwide injunction entered by a federal judge in Texas, enjoining the Department of Labor (“DOL”) from enforcing those new rules on the grounds that the DOL had overstepped its bounds.

The injunction threw the new rules into a state of limbo, as employers and employees alike were left to wonder whether the DOL would appeal that decision to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Under normal circumstances, one would assume that the DOL would appeal that ruling.  However, normal circumstances do not exist.  With a new President set to be sworn in shortly, and with a new Secretary of Labor presumably to be appointed thereafter, there was much speculation about what the DOL would do.

The question has now been answered – at least for the short term.

On December 1, 2016 – perhaps not coincidentally, the same day the rules were to go into effect – the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) filed an appeal on behalf of the DOL. 

The DOL has issued a brief statement about its position, which may be found here: https://www.dol.gov/whd/overtime/final2016/litigation.htm

In short, it is the DOL’s position that the salary basis test has been part of the FLSA overtime rules since 1940, and that the new rules were the result of a comprehensive rule-making process that complied with the law.

While the notice of appeal has been filed, it remains difficult to predict whether or how long the appeal will in fact proceed.  Unless the President-elect should indicate otherwise, it is certainly possible that the new Secretary of Labor will pull the plug on the appeal shortly after he or she assumes the role.

We will continue to monitor the case and share any significant developments. In the meantime, it would appear safe to say that employers should feel comfortable that they need not comply with the new rules, and that those who already implemented or announced changes prior to the injunction should seek guidance on how best to proceed if they intend to rescind those changes.

Even employers who were opposed to the new overtime regulations are in a quandary after the District Court for the Eastern District of Texas enjoined the Department of Labor from implementing new salary thresholds for the FLSA’s “white collar” exemptions.

Will the injunction become permanent?  Will it be upheld by the Fifth Circuit? 

Will the Department of Labor continue to defend the case when the Trump Administration is in place? 

What does the rationale behind the District Court’s injunction (that the language of the FLSA suggests exempt status should be determined based only on an employee’s duties) mean for the $455-per-week salary threshold in the “old” regulations?

As noted in our post regarding the injunction, whether employers can reverse salary increases that already have been implemented or announced is an issue that should be approached carefully.

For example, employers should be aware that state law may specify the amount of notice that an employer must provide to an employee before changing his or her pay.

In most states, employers merely need to give employees notice of a change in pay before the beginning of the pay period in which the new wage rate comes into effect.

But some states require impose additional requirements.  The New York Department of Labor, for example, explains that if the information in an employee’s wage statement changes, “the employer must tell employees at least a week before it happens unless they issue a new paystub that carries the notice. The employer must notify an employee in writing before they reduce the employee’s wage rate. Employers in the hospitality industry must give notice every time a wage rate changes.”

Maryland (and Iowa) requires notice at least one pay period in advance.  Alaska, Maine, Missouri, North Carolina, Nevada and South Carolina have their own notice requirements.

Employers who are making changes to wage rates based on the status of the DOL’s regulations should be nimble – while also making sure that they are providing the notice required under state law.

Stop SignWe have written often in the past several months about the new FLSA overtime rules that were scheduled to go into effect in little more than a week, dramatically increasing the salary thresholds for “white collar” exemptions and also providing for automatic increases for those thresholds.

In our most recent piece about the important decisions employers had to make by the effective date of December 1, 2016, careful readers noticed a couple of peculiar words — “barring … a last-minute injunction.”

On November 22, 2016, a federal judge in the Eastern District of Texas entered just such an injunction, enjoining the Department of Labor from implementing the new rules on a nationwide basis.

“The court determines that the state plaintiffs have satisfied all prerequisites for a preliminary injunction,” wrote United States District Court Judge Amos Mazzant III. “The state plaintiffs have established a prima facie case that the Department’s salary level under the final rule and the automatic updating mechanism are without statutory authority.”

The state plaintiffs had argued that the Department of Labor usurped Congress’ authority in establishing new salary thresholds. Finding that the Department had overstepped its bounds, Judge Mazzant wrote, “If Congress intended the salary requirement to supplant the duties test, then Congress and not the department, should make that change.”

The injunction could leave employers in a state of limbo for weeks, months and perhaps longer as injunctions often do not resolve cases and, instead, lead to lengthy appeals. Here, though, the injunction could spell the quick death to the new rules should the Department choose not to appeal the decision in light of the impending Donald Trump presidency. We will continue to monitor this matter as it develops.

To the extent that employers have not already increased exempt employees’ salaries or converted them to non-exempt positions, the injunction will at the very least allow employers to postpone those changes. And, depending on the final resolution of this issue, it is possible they may never need to implement them.

The last-minute injunction puts some employers in a difficult position, though — those that already implemented changes in anticipation of the new rules or that informed employees that they will receive salary increases or will be converted to non-exempt status effective December 1, 2016.

Whether employers can reverse salary increases they have already implemented is an issue that should be addressed carefully with legal guidance.

As for those employers that informed employees of changes that would go into effect on December 1, 2016, they, too, should seek legal guidance as to how to communicate with employees that those announced changes will not go into effect at that time.

While the FLSA rules are now enjoined, employers must now be mindful not only of morale issues that might result from not providing employees with raises that were implemented or announced, but also of potential breach of contract claims.

Overtime Clock Faces - Abstract PhotoBarring some unexpected development or a last-minute injunction in one of the lawsuits challenging the new Department of Labor overtime rules, the new salary thresholds for white collar exemptions will go into effect on December 1, 2016.

That, of course, is now less than two weeks away.

We have written at length about those new rules, as well as the critical decisions that employers will need to make to comply with them:

  • Whether to increase employees’ salaries to meet the new thresholds;
  • Whether to reclassify employees as non-exempt and begin to pay them hourly rates, plus overtime;
  • What hourly rates to set for reclassified employees so as not to pay them more than employers intend – or less; and
  • How these decisions will impact other employees and the employers’ salary structures.

Hopefully, most employers have already addressed these issues internally and will be prepared to comply with the new rules on or before December 1, 2016.

But for those who have not, the clock is ticking, and waiting to address these issues until after December 1, 2016 could lead to potential claims that might be exceedingly difficult to defend.

In May of this year, the U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”) announced its final rule to increase the minimum salary for white-collar exemptions, effective December 1, 2016. With less than two months to go before that new rule takes effect, employers still have time to decide how to address those otherwise exempt employees whose current salaries would not satisfy the new rule, by either increasing their salaries or converting them to non-exempt status.

The New Salary Thresholds

Effective December 1, 2016, the salary threshold for the executive, administrative, and professional exemption will effectively double, increasing from $23,660 ($455 per week) to $47,476 ($913 per week). This increase is but one of the changes that goes into effect on December 1.

The total annual compensation requirement for “highly compensated employees” subject to a minimal duties test will also increase from $100,000 to $134,004. The salary basis test will be amended to allow employers to use non-discretionary bonuses and incentive payments, such as commissions, to satisfy up to 10 percent of the salary threshold. And the salary threshold for the white-collar exemptions will automatically update every three years to “ensure that they continue to provide useful and effective tests for exemption.”

On first glance, dealing with the increase in the minimum salaries for white-collar exemptions would not appear to create much of a challenge for employers—they must decide whether to increase employees’ salaries or convert them to non-exempt status. Many employers that have already reviewed the issue and its repercussions would likely disagree with the assessment that this is a simple task. The decisions not only impact the affected employees but also affect the employers’ budgets and compensation structures, potentially creating unwanted salary compressions or forcing employers to adjust the salaries of other employees.

In addition, converting employees to non-exempt status requires an employer to set new hourly rates for the employees. If that is not done carefully, it could result in the employee receiving an unanticipated increase in compensation—perhaps a huge one— or an unexpected decrease in annual compensation.

The Impact on Compensation Structures

For otherwise exempt employees whose compensation already satisfies the new minimum salaries, nothing need be done to comply with the new DOL rule. But that does not mean that those employees will not be affected by the new rule. Employers that raise the salaries of other employees to comply with the new thresholds could create operational or morale issues for those whose salaries are not being adjusted. It is not difficult to conceive of situations where complying with the rule by only addressing the compensation of those who fall below the threshold would result in a lower-level employee leapfrogging over a higher-level employee in terms of compensation, or where it results in unwanted salary compression. Salary shifts could also affect any analysis of whether the new compensation structure adversely affects individuals in protected categories. A female senior manager who is now being paid only several hundred dollars per year more than the lower-level male manager might well raise a concern about gender discrimination if her salary is not also adjusted.

The Impact of Increasing Salaries

For otherwise exempt employees who currently do not earn enough to satisfy the new minimum salary thresholds, employers have two choices: increase the salary to satisfy the new threshold or convert the employee to non-exempt status. Converting employees to non-exempt status can create challenges in attempting to set their hourly rates (addressed separately below).

If, for example, an otherwise exempt employee currently earns a salary of $47,000 per year, the employer may have an easy decision to give the employee a raise of at least $476 to satisfy the new threshold. But many decisions would not be so simple, particularly once they are viewed outside of a vacuum. What about the employee earning $40,000? Should that employee be given a raise of more than $7,000 or should she be converted to non-exempt status? It is not difficult to see how one employer would choose to give an employee a $7,000 raise while another would choose to convert that employee to non-exempt status.

What if the amount of an increase seems small, but it would have a large impact because of the number of employees affected? A salary increase of $5,000 for a single employee to meet the new salary threshold may not have a substantial impact upon many employers. But what if the employer would need to give that $5,000 increase to 500 employees across the country to maintain their exempt status? Suddenly, maintaining the exemption would carry a $2,500,000 price tag. And that is not a one-time cost; it is an annual one that would likely increase as the salary threshold is updated.

The Impact of Reclassifying an Employee as Non-Exempt

If an employer decides to convert an employee to non-exempt status, it faces a new challenge—setting the employee’s hourly rate. Doing that requires much more thought than punching numbers into a calculator.

If the employer “reverse engineers” an hourly rate by just taking the employee’s salary and assuming the employee works 52 weeks a year and 40 hours each week, it will result in the employee earning the same amount as before so long as she does not work any overtime. The employee will earn more than she did before if she works any overtime at all. And if she works a significant amount of overtime, the reclassification to non-exempt status could result in the employee earning significantly more than she earned before as an exempt employee. If she worked 10 hours of overtime a week, she would effectively receive a 37 percent increase in compensation.

But calculating the employee’s new hourly rate based on an expectation that she will work more overtime than is realistic would result in the employee earning less than she did before. If, for instance, the employer calculated an hourly rate by assuming that the employee would work 10 hours of overtime each week, and if she worked less than that, she would earn less than she did before—perhaps significantly less. That, of course, could lead to a severe morale issue—or to the unwanted departure of a valued employee.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Take 5 newsletter Five Critical Wage and Hour Issues Impacting Employers.”

A group of 21 states (“the States”) has filed a Complaint in the Eastern District of Texas challenging the new regulations from U.S. Department of Labor that re-define the white collar exemptions to the overtime requirements of the FLSA.  The States argue the DOL overstepped its authority by, among other things, establishing a new minimum salary threshold for those exemptions.

Pursuant to the new regulations from the U.S. Department of Labor, effective December 1, 2016:

  • the salary threshold for the executive, administrative, and professional exemption will effectively double from $23,660 ($455 per week) to $47,476 ($913 per week);
  • “Highly Compensated Employees” (“HCEs”) must earn annual compensation of at least $100,000; and
  • an indexing mechanism will be applied to automatically update the salary threshold and the HCE compensation requirement every three years.

The Complaint challenges each of the new regulations, and seeks declaratory and injunctive relief.

The Salary Threshold Allegedly Violates the FLSA

The Complaint filed by the States points out that the FLSA itself makes no reference any salary threshold, but rather speaks only to the duties of exempt employees.

Specifically, the plain language of 29 U.S.C. §213 states that the FLSA’s overtime requirements do not apply to “any employee employed in a bona fide executive, administrative, or professional capacity…” The Complaint states that the statute “speaks in terms of ‘activities,’ not salary.”

The new salary threshold would take away the exempt status of millions of executive, administrative and professional employees. On that basis, the Complaint alleges that the new regulations violate the FLSA and are an improper exercise of legislative power by an Executive agency.

The Complaint also alleges that the language of the FLSA does not allow for (i) the salary basis test itself, (ii) the distinct compensation threshold for highly compensated employees or (iii) the indexing mechanism in the new regulations that would automatically update the salary threshold.

The Complaint notes that DOL regulations have provided for a salary threshold at some level since 1940, but suggests that the DOL’s authority to do so was never challenged.

The Tenth Amendment Allegedly Precludes Applying the Regulations to the States

The Complaint further alleges that the new salary threshold violates the Tenth Amendment by allowing the Executive Branch to infringe upon state sovereignty and federalism by dictating the wages that States must pay to their own employees.

The Complaint admits that the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the application of the FLSA to the states, but suggests that the issue should be revisited in light of the new regulations and the burdens they impose on the 21 States seeking relief.

Moreover, the Complaint points to the potential for future abuse through the application of a salary threshold to States. Because “there is apparently no ceiling over which DOL cannot set the salary level,” the DOL could raise the salary threshold however it sees fit.  The Complaint therefore contends that the Executive Branch could “deplete State resources, forcing the States to adopt or acquiesce to federal policies, instead of implementing State policies and priorities.”

The New Regulations Allegedly Violate the APA

The Complaint proceeds to contend that (i) the automatic updates to the salary threshold and HCE compensation requirements violate the notice-and-comment requirements of the federal Administrative Procedure Act and the FLSA’s requirement that the white collar exemptions be “defined and delimited from time to time by regulations of the Secretary ….”; and (ii) the new regulations are arbitrary and capricious in violation of the APA.

More than 50 business groups including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and the National Retail Federation filed a separate lawsuit in the same court and on the same day.  The business groups also contending the new DOL regulations were implemented in violation of the APA.

The States lawsuit alleges some novel and interesting theories to challenge the Department of Labor’s new regulations, and the District Court’s response to these claims bears watching as the effective date of the new regulations draws near.

Time Is Running Out for Employers to Make Important Decisions to Comply with New DOL Overtime Exemption RuleIn May, the Department of Labor (“DOL”) announced its final rule to increase the minimum salary for white collar exemptions.  With little more than two months to go before that new rule takes effect on December 1, 2016, employers still have time to decide how to address those otherwise exempt employees whose current salaries would not satisfy the new rule by either increasing their salaries or converting them to non-exempt status.

But some of those decisions may not be easy ones.  And they may create some unexpected challenges, both financially and operationally.

New Salary Thresholds

Effective December 1, 2016, the salary threshold for the executive, administrative, and professional exemption will effectively double, increasing from $23,660 ($455 per week) to $47,476 ($913 per week).

The total annual compensation requirement for “highly compensated employees” subject to a minimal duties test will also increase from $100,000 to $134,004. The salary basis test will be amended to allow employers to use non-discretionary bonuses and incentive payments, such as commissions, to satisfy up to 10 percent of the salary threshold.  And the salary threshold for the white collar exemptions will automatically update every three years to “ensure that they continue to provide useful and effective tests for exemption.”

Impact Upon Compensation Structures

For otherwise exempt employees whose compensation already satisfy the new minimum salaries, nothing need be done to comply with the new DOL rule.  But that does not mean that those employees will not be affected by the new rule.

If employers are raising the salaries of other employees to comply with the new thresholds, it could create operational or morale issues for those whose salaries are not being adjusted.

Take, for instance, an otherwise exempt senior manager who currently earns $48,000 per year.  Her salary need not be adjusted to comply with the new rule.

But if she is higher in the  organizational hierarchy than a manager who currently earns $36,000 per year, and if that lower-level manager is given a salary increase to meet the new $47,476 threshold, it is not difficult to see how there could be an issue with the senior manager.  The senior manager would now earn only a little more each year than the manager who falls beneath her in the hierarchy.

If the employer then adjusts her salary – and everyone else’s – to maintain its compensation structure, the impact of increasing the salary of a single manager to comply with the new rule will not be just the amount of the increase in his salary to meet the new threshold; it will be the increases in all of the salaries that it triggers.

That is but one example.  It is not difficult to conceive of situations where complying with the rule by only addressing the compensation of those who fall below the threshold would result in a lower level employee leapfrogging over a higher level employee in terms of compensation, or where it results in unwanted salary compression.

And that is to say nothing of the impact that salary shifts could have upon any analysis of whether the new compensation structure adversely affects individuals in protected categories.  In the example above, the female senior manager who is now being paid only several hundred dollars per year more than the lower-level male manager might well raise a concern about gender discrimination if her salary is not also adjusted.

Impact of Increasing Salaries

For otherwise exempt employees who currently do not earn enough to satisfy the new minimum salary thresholds, employers have two choices: increase the salary to satisfy the new threshold or convert the employee to non-exempt status.

Some of those decisions may be relatively simple, particularly when viewed in a vacuum, but some may be more difficult.

If an otherwise exempt employee currently earns a salary of $47,000 per year, the employer may have an easy decision to give the employee a raise of at least $476 to satisfy the new threshold.

And if any employee currently earns $24,000 per year, an employer may have an easy decision to convert the employee to non-exempt status rather than give the employee a raise of more than $20,000.

But what about the employee earning $40,000 per year?  Should that employee be given a raise of more than $7,000 or should she be converted to non-exempt status?  It is not difficult to see how one employer would choose to give an employee a $7,000 raise while another would choose to convert that employee to non-exempt status.

And what if the amount of an increase seems small, but it would have a large impact because of the number of employees affected?  A salary increase of $5,000 for a single employee to meet the new salary threshold may not have a substantial impact upon many employers.  But what if the employer would need to give that $5,000 increase to 500 employees across the country to maintain their exempt status?  Suddenly, maintaining the exemption would carry a $2,500,000 price tag.  And that is not a one-time cost; it is an annual one that would likely increase as the salary threshold is updated.

Impact of Reclassifying an Employee As Non-Exempt

If an employer decides to convert an employee to non-exempt status, it faces a new challenge – setting the employee’s hourly rate.

If the employer “reverse engineers” an hourly rate by just taking the employee’s salary and assuming the employee works 52 weeks a year and 40 hours each week, it will result in the employee earning the same amount as before so long as she does not work any overtime.  The employee will earn more than she did before if she works any overtime at all.  And if she works a significant amount of overtime, the reclassification to non-exempt status could result in the employee earning significantly more than she earned before as an exempt employee.  If she worked 10 hours of overtime a week, she would effectively receive a 37% increase in compensation as a result of her reclassification.

But calculating the employee’s new hourly rate based on an expectation that she will work more overtime than is realistic would result in the employee earning less than she did before.  If, for instance, the employer calculated an hourly rate by assuming that the employee would work 10 hours of overtime each week, and if she worked less than that, she would earn less annually than she did before – perhaps significantly less. That, of course, could lead to a severe morale issue – or to the unwanted departure of a valued employee.

In calculating the new hourly rate for employees they are reclassifying, employers should be careful to do so based upon realistic expectations of the overtime each of those employees will work such that it does not end up paying them significantly more – or significantly less – than they intend.

Whatever employers decide to do, the December 1, 2016, deadline is getting closer each day.

Overtime Clock Faces - Abstract PhotoNearly a year after the Department of Labor (“DOL”) issued its Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to address an increase in the minimum salary for white collar exemptions, the DOL has announced its final rule, to take effect on December 1, 2016.

While the earlier notice had indicated that the salary threshold for the executive, administrative, and professional exemption would be increased from $23,660 ($455 per week) to $50,440 ($970 per week), the final rule will not raise the threshold that far.  Instead, it will raise it to $47,476 ($913 per week).

According to the DOL’s Fact Sheet, the final rule will also do the following:

  • The total annual compensation requirement for “highly compensated employees” subject to a minimal duties test will increase from the current level of $100,000 to $134,004, which represents the 90th percentile of full-time salaried workers nationally.
  • The salary threshold for the executive, administrative, professional, and highly compensated employee exemptions will automatically update every three years to “ensure that they continue to provide useful and effective tests for exemption.”
  • The salary basis test will be amended to allow employers to use non-discretionary bonuses and incentive payments, such as commissions, to satisfy up to 10 percent of the salary threshold.
  • The final rule does not in any way change the current duties tests.

While it is certainly good news for employers that the duties tests will not be augmented and that non-discretionary bonuses and other incentive payments can be used to partially contribute to the salary threshold, the increase to the salary threshold is expected to extend the right to overtime pay to an estimated 4.2 million workers who are currently exempt.

With the benefit of more than six months until the final rule takes effect, employers should not delay in auditing their workforces to identify any employees currently treated as exempt who will not meet the new salary threshold. For such persons, employers will need to determine whether to increase workers’ salaries or convert them to non-exempt.

More than a year after its efforts were first announced, the U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”) has finally announced its proposed new rule pertaining to overtime. And that rule, if implemented, will result in a great many “white collar” employees previously treated as exempt becoming eligible for overtime pay for work performed beyond 40 hours in a workweek – or receiving salary increases in order that their exempt status will continue.

In 2014, President Obama directed the DOL to enhance the “white collar” exemptions to the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), which currently exempt from overtime some employees who earn $455 per week, or $23,660 per year.  The DOL’s proposed rule would more than double the salary threshold for an executive, administrative or professional exemption to apply, increasing it to $970 per week, or $50,440 per year.  In addition, the highly compensated employee exemption would increase from $100,000 to $122,148.  Not unimportantly, pursuant to the proposed rule, These salary figures would automatically adjust for annual inflation.  

Somewhat surprisingly, the proposed rule does not propose any enhancements to the duties requirements for an employee to qualify for any of the “white collar” exemptions.  The proposed rule does, however, invite comments regarding the amount of time employees should be engaged in executive, administrative, or professional work to qualify for the exemption.  Under the current federal regulations, exempt work must constitute the employee’s “primary duty.”  That is a qualitative analysis, not a quantitative one.  By inviting comments on consideration of California’s requirement that exempt duties be performed more than 50 percent of the time – a quantitative analysis – the DOL has suggested the possibility of another significant change to “white collar” exemptions.  As California employers know all too well, employees frequently file suit alleging they spend less than 50 percent of their time in exempt activities, challenging their employers to prove otherwise.  

The proposed rule likely will be published shortly in the Federal Register.  Upon publication, the proposed rule will be open to a 60-day comment period.  The DOL will review the comments, respond where appropriate and issue its final regulations.  The regulations will not be subject to Congressional approval.  It is important to note that when the “white collar” exemptions were last revised in 2004, the DOL received over 100,000 comments and spent nearly a full year responding to those comments before finalizing the regulations.