U.S. Department of Labor

As we wrote in this space just last week, the U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”) has proposed a new salary threshold for most “white collar” exemptions.  The new rule would increase the minimum salary to $35,308 per year ($679 per week) – nearly the exact midpoint between the longtime $23,600 salary threshold and the $47,476 threshold that had been proposed by the Obama Administration.  The threshold for “highly compensated” employees would also increase — from $100,000 to $147,414 per year.

Should the proposed rule go into effect – and there is every reason to believe it will – it would be effective on January 1, 2020.  That gives employers plenty of time to consider their options and make necessary changes.

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 reviewed the issue and its repercussions back in 2016, when it was expected that the Obama Administration’s rules would go into effect, would likely disagree with the assessment that this is a simple task. The decisions not only impact the affected employees, but they 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 employees receiving unanticipated increases in compensation—perhaps huge ones— or unexpected decreases in annual compensation.

The Impact on Compensation Structures

For otherwise exempt employees whose compensation already satisfies the new minimum salaries, nothing would 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 would 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 $35,000 per year, the employer may have an easy decision to give the employee a raise of at least $308 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 who is earning $30,000 per year? Should that employee be given a raise of more than $5,000 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 $5,000 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 those employees received subsequent raises.

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 at all during the year. The employee will earn more than she did previously 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.  And, depending on the hourly rate and the number of overtime hours she actually works, she could end up making more as a non-exempt employee than the $35,308 exemption threshold.

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.

The U.S. Department of Labor has released a proposal to update the overtime rules under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act. Employers should be prepared to raise salaries to meet the minimum thresholds, pay overtime when appropriate, and otherwise adhere to the new rules if they go into effect.

Federal overtime provisions are contained in the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”). Unless exempt, employees covered by the FLSA must receive overtime pay for hours worked over 40 in a workweek. To be exempt from overtime (i.e., not entitled to receive overtime), an exemption must apply. For an exemption to apply, an employee’s specific job duties and salary must meet certain minimum requirements. The “salary test” presently requires workers to make at least $23,660 on an annual basis to be exempt from overtime.

In March 2014, President Obama directed the Secretary of Labor to update the overtime regulations in the FLSA. In May 2016, after receiving more than 270,000 comments, the Department of Labor issued a final rule that raised the minimum salary threshold to $47,476 per year. That rule was declared invalid by the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Texas, and the Fifth Circuit dismissed the Department of Labor’s appeal – at the Department’s request – in September 2017.

The Department is now proposing to formally rescind the 2016 rule and is proposing a new rule that:

  • Raises the salary threshold from $455 per week ($23,660 per year) to $679 per week ($35,308 per year);
  • Allows employers to include “certain nondiscretionary bonuses and incentive payments” as up to 10% of the new $679 per week salary threshold; and
  • Raises the total annual compensation requirement for highly compensated employees – which are subject to a minimal duties test – from $100,000 to $147,414.

The proposed rule makes no changes to the duties test for executive, administrative, and professional employees. The Department intends to propose updates to the salary levels every four years.

More information about the proposed rule is available here. Employers with salaried employees under $35,308 annually should closely monitor the development of the rule and be prepared to adjust their pay practices. If it goes into effect, the new threshold will likely take effect in early 2020.

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.”

The Administrator of the Wage Hour Division of U.S. Department of Labor has issued an Administrator’s Interpretation of the FLSA’s definition of “employ.” And the conclusion is one that not only could have a significant impact on the way companies do business, but lead to numerous class and collective actions alleging that workers have been misclassified as independent contractors.

Addressing the misclassification of employees as independent contractors, the Administrator’s Interpretation notes that the FLSA’s defines the term “employ” as “to suffer or permit to work.” Based on that definition, the DOL concludes that “most workers are employees.”

The Interpretation cites to the six-factor “economic realities” test the DOL applies as indicia of employment, but emphasizes certain aspects of that test.  Notably, the Administrator states that the goal of the “economic realities” test is to determine whether a worker is “economically dependent” on the alleged employer, or is really in business for himself or herself.

1.  Is the Work an Integral Part of the Employer’s Business?

The Administrator’s Interpretation emphasizes that a workers’ duties are likely to be an “integral part” of an employer’s business if they relate to the employer’s core products or services.

For example, the Interpretation cited to the Seventh Circuit’s decision in Secretary of Labor v. Lauritzen, a self-described “federal pickle case” in which the issue was “whether the migrant workers who harvest the pickle crop of defendant … are employees … or are instead independent contractors….”

Summarizing the point, the Administrator’s Interpretation quoted the Seventh Circuit’s statement in that case stating that it “does not take much of a record to demonstrate that picking the pickles is a necessary and integral part of the pickle business. . . .”

2.  Does the Worker’s Managerial Skill Affect the Worker’s Opportunity for Profit or Loss?

The Administrator’s Interpretation emphasizes that the opportunity for profit or loss reflects independent contractor status only when it is dependent on managerial skill.

By contrast, the Administrator opines that the fact that a worker that can increase his or her earnings by working longer hours is not evidence that the worker is an independent contractor

3.  How Does the Worker’s Relative Investment Compare to the Employer’s Investment?

Previously, the DOL had stated that the relative investment of a worker “compared favorably” if the investment was substantial and could be used for the purpose of sustaining a business beyond the particular job or project the worker was performing.

While these factors are mentioned in the new guidance, the Administrator’s Interpretation appears to place greater emphasis on a comparison of the investments of the worker and the potential employer.  The Administrator opines that even if a worker has made an investment, that investment has to be significant when compared to the investment of the purported employer.

4.  Does the Work Performed Require Special Skill and Initiative?

The Administrator’s Interpretation asserts that it is a worker’s business skills as an independent business person, not his or her technical skills, that support independent contractor status.

The Administrator states that only skilled workers who operate as independent businesses, as opposed to being economically dependent on a potential employer, are independent contractors.

5.  Is the Relationship between the Worker and the Employer Permanent or Indefinite?

The DOL’s prior Fact Sheet on independent contractor status stated that the absence of a permanent relationship may not suggest independent contractor status when arising from “industry-specific factors” or the fact that the potential employer “routinely uses staffing agencies.”

The Administrator’s Interpretation adds to this opinion by opining that the finite nature of an independent contractor relationship should be the result of the worker’s “own business initiative.”

Thus, an employer who imposes limits on the duration of its independent contractor relationships should consider whether that policy will continue to have the desired results.

6.  What is the Nature and Degree of the Employer’s Control?

The Administrator’s interpretation emphasizes that an independent contractor must control “meaningful aspects” of the work demonstrating that the worker is conducting his or her own business.  However, the Interpretation does not specifically explain what aspects of a job are “meaningful.”

The Administrator does make clear that flexible work arrangements are common forms of employment.  Therefore, the Interpretation concludes the fact that an individual works from home or controls the hours of work is not particularly indicative of independent contractor status.

While the Administrator’s Interpretation does not have the force of law (or regulation), it will be applied by the DOL and may be given deference by courts.  Accordingly, employers should evaluate the extent to which they are relying on criteria addressed by the Administrator (such as flexible work arrangements and relationships of finite duration) as justification for classifying workers as independent contractors.

 

 

Epstein Becker Green is pleased to announce the availability of a Wage and Hour Division Investigation Checklist, which provides employers with valuable information about wage and hour investigations and audits conducted by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL). Like EBG’s first-of-its kind Wage and Hour App, which provides detailed information about federal and state laws, the Checklist is a free resource offered by EBG.

The Checklist provides step-by-step guidance on the following issues: preparation before a Wage and Hour Division investigation of the DOL; preliminary investigation issues; document production; on-site inspection activities; employee interviews; and back-wage findings, and post-audit considerations.

“The multitude of wage and hour claims and lawsuits that workers have filed under the Fair Labor Standards Act and its state law counterparts have made wage and hour law the nation’s fastest growing type of litigation. And federal and state agencies are investigating and pursuing wage and hour claims more aggressively than ever,” said Michael Kun, the national Co-Chairperson of the firm’s Wage and Hour, Individual and Collective Actions practice group. “We hope that our Checklist will serve as an important resource for employers to use when confronted with an audit – and perhaps help them avoid an audit altogether.”

Click Here to Download EBG’s Wage and Hour Division Investigation Checklist