On May 18, 2016, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) released its final rule updating overtime requirements for employers. The rule was scheduled to take effect December 1, 2016. However, in November 2016 a Federal Judge in Texas issued a preliminary injunction suspending the rule, and, most recently on August 31, 2017, the same judge issued a final ruling striking the rule down entirely.
Although the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) could challenge the ruling, that appears unlikely since the DOL sent a request for information (RFI) on the 2016 overtime rule to the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. Generally, such requests signal that a government agency is looking for information to determine whether there is a need for a new rulemaking.
Based on public comments made by the DOL, if there is new rulemaking, it’s possible that the salary threshold (or the base amount most employees must be paid to be exempt from overtime) will be increased. That said, it’s unlikely it will be raised as dramatically as the initial proposal, which attempted to tip the scales from $23,660 ($455 per week) to $47,476 ($913 per week).
While employers wait to see what the DOL’s next steps may be, it is important that they continue to follow the three tests (discussed below) that must be met in order for a worker to be excluded from overtime under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) (29 U.S.C. 201, et seq.)
Enacted in 1938, the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) (29 U.S.C. 201, et seq.) establishes minimum wage ($8.44 in New Jersey), overtime pay eligibility, recordkeeping, and child labor rules.
With few exceptions, most businesses are covered under the law which requires employers to determine the pay status of all employees within their organization. This means deciding whether each employee is exempt from overtime, or, entitled to at least one and one-half times their regular rate of pay for any hours worked over 40 in a workweek.
Some employers consider an employee to be exempt from overtime because they pay the person on a salaried basis or provide them with a high-level title. This is not the case.
In making the decision that a worker is not eligible for overtime, there are three tests that should be considered: the salary level test, the salary basis test, and the duties test.
—Salary Level Test—
The salary level test provides a base amount that most employees must be paid to be exempt from overtime. It is currently $23,660 ($455 per week). As previously discussed, there is some speculation that the threshold will be raised if there is new rulemaking, but at present employers should abide by the $23,660 amount.
Regardless of whether that level gets raised in the future, it’s important that employers have a clear understanding of what it means to pay a salary because that aspect of the law is not likely to change.
Being paid a salary means an employee regularly receives a predetermined amount of compensation each pay period on a weekly, or less frequent, basis. In New Jersey, most employers are required to pay wages at least twice during each calendar month, on regular paydays designated in advance by the employer. However, for certain executive, supervisory or other special classes of workers, payment can be made once a month as long as there is a regularly established schedule.
—Salary Basis Test—
There are no changes anticipated to the salary basis test. That is, to qualify for the overtime exemption, employers: have to pay employees a predetermined amount on a regular schedule; can’t reduce compensation because of problems with the quantity or quality of the work; and, still have to pay an employee for a full week when any work was performed.
Under the salary basis test, pay deductions are only allowed for exempt (not overtime eligible) employees for the reasons listed below.
- An employee is absent from work for one or more full days for personal reasons other than sickness or disability;
- An employee is absent for one or more full days due to sickness or disability if the deduction is made in accordance with a bona fide plan, policy or practice of providing compensation for salary lost due to illness;
- To offset pay employees receive as jury or witness fees, or for military pay;
- For penalties imposed in good faith for infractions of safety rules of major significance; or,
- For unpaid disciplinary suspensions of one or more full days imposed in good faith for workplace conduct rule infractions.
Also, an employer is not required to pay the full salary in the initial or terminal week of employment, or for weeks in which an exempt employee takes unpaid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) (29 U.S.C. 2601, et seq.).
Employers who have what’s known as an “actual practice” of improper deductions risk the loss of overtime exemption status for all employees in the same job classification. An “actual practice” of improper deductions depends largely on the number of correct versus incorrect deductions; the time period over which the deductions were made; the number of employees affected; and, the geographic location of the employees affected by the deductions.
Isolated or accidental improper deductions generally will not result in the loss of the exemption if the employer reimburses the employee for the improper deductions. In fact, the DOL has a safe harbor policy for employers with: clear policies against improper deductions; established payroll complaint procedures; reimbursement policies for improper deductions; and, established efforts to comply in the future.
—Primary Duties Test—
Employees who meet the salary basis and salary level tests must also meet a “duties test” to be excluded from overtime under what’s known as a “white collar exemption.”
The white collar exemption excludes workers from minimum wage and overtime if they are bona fide executive, administrative, professional, outside sales employees, and certain computer employees. It also lays out a set of tasks that determine whether an employee falls into the exempt category because of their “primary duty” in any one of these areas.
Primary duty means the principal, main, major or most important duty that the employee performs. The amount of time spent performing exempt tasks can be a useful guide. Employees who spend more than 50 percent of their time performing exempt work will generally meet the primary duty requirement. Time alone, however, is not the sole test as an employer may also want to consider the importance of the employee’s duties and the decision making power they hold.
Below are a list of the requirements and primary duties that must be met to qualify for either an executive, administrative, professional, outside sales employee, or computer white collar exemption:
- Earns at least $455 per week.
- Primary duty is the management of the enterprise or a recognized department or subdivision.
- Customarily and regularly directs the work of two or more other employees.
- Has the authority to hire or fire other employees (or recommendations as to the hiring, firing, promotion or other change of status of other employees are given particular weight).
- Earns at least $455 per week.
- Primary duty is performing office or non-manual work directly related to the management or general business operations of the employer or the employer’s customers.
- Primary duty includes the exercise of discretion and independent judgement with respect to matters of significance.
Professional Exemption (Learned Professional)
- Earns at least $455 per week.
- Primary duty is performing office or non-manual work requiring the knowledge of an advanced type in a field of science or learning customarily acquired by a prolonged course of specialized intellectual instruction, but which also may be acquired by alternative means such as an equivalent combination of intellectual instruction and work experience.
Professional Exemption (Creative Professional)
- Earns at least $455 per week.
- Primary duty is performing work requiring invention, imagination, originality or talent in a recognized field of artistic or creative endeavor.
Computer Employee Exemption
- Compensated either on a salary or fee basis at a rate not less than $455 per week. Compensation may also be paid on an hourly basis, at a rate not less than $27.63 an hour;
- Employed as a computer systems analyst, computer programmer, software engineer or other similarly skilled worker in the computer field performing the duties described below:
- The application of systems analysis techniques and procedures, including consulting with users, to determine hardware, software or system functional specifications;
- The design, development, documentation, analysis, creation, testing or modification of computer systems or programs, including prototypes, based on and related to user or system design specifications;
- The design, documentation, testing, creation or modification of computer programs related to machine operating systems; or
- A combination of the aforementioned duties, the performance of which requires the same level of skills.
Outside Sales Exemption
To qualify for the outside sales employee exemption, all of the following tests must be met:
- Primary duty must be making sales (as defined in the FLSA), or obtaining orders or contracts for services or for the use of facilities for which a consideration will be paid by the client or customer; and,
- The employee must be customarily and regularly engaged away from the employer’s place or places of business.
—Highly Compensated Employee—
In addition to the executive, administrative, professional, outside sales employee, and computer white collar exemptions, an employee may be exempt from overtime because they are considered highly compensated.
One of the most significant changes proposed by the federal rule, if it is upheld, would be increasing the salary level for highly compensated employees (HCEs) from $100,000 to $134,004. If the rule is upheld, the salary level would also automatically increase every three years.
A highly compensated employee is exempt from overtime if:
- The employee earns total annual compensation of $134,004 if the rule is upheld, otherwise the amount would be $100,000. This must include at $913 least per week paid on a salary basis if the new rule is upheld. Otherwise, the amount would be $455;
- The employee’s primary duty includes performing office or non-manual work; and,
- The employee customarily and regularly performs at least one of the exempt duties or responsibilities of an exempt executive, administrative or professional employee.
—What is the likely fate of the overtime rule and what options do employers have at this time? —
The fate of the new overtime rule is still up in the air. The U.S. Department of Labor under President Trump has said it has decided not to advocate for the specific salary level ($913 per week) set in the original Obama Administration proposal and that it intends to further evaluate what the salary level should be.
Sometime in the future, what employers may see is trimmed down version of the rule. There is some speculation that the required salary level will be set somewhere in the low- to mid-$30,000 range, based on earlier comments from U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta. The exact timing of any new rule proposal, however, is unknown.
Employers have the option to delay making changes to see how the case plays out since there is no end date to the injunction. However, if the ruling is overturned it’s possible that employees could seek retroactive compliance with the regulations. If the ruling does in fact get overturned, there are two scenarios: the regulations apply retroactively to December 1, 2016, or the regulations take effect only prospectively from the date the decision is reversed.
As a result some attorneys are encouraging employers who delay making changes to have employees track their time so that they have an accurate measure of hours worked.
Most employers who have already made the changes they need to comply with the new rule are not going to try to reverse new compensation structures. Instead, they are just informing their employees of the new developments and the fact that they may have to make further adjustments in the future depending on the final ruling in the case.
—For More Information—
For more information, please contact NJBIA’s Member Action Center at 1-800-499-4419, ext. 3 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Updated: September 6, 2017
This information should not be construed as constituting specific legal advice. It is intended to provide general information about this subject and general compliance strategies. For specific legal advice, NJBIA strongly recommends members consult with their attorney.