The Fair Labor Standards Act requires covered employers to pay minimum wages and overtime compensation to certain categories of employees. However, the law contains several exceptions or “exemptions” from these requirements, most of which turn on a combination of the employees’ pay and the nature of their job duties. For example, Section 13(a)(1) of the FLSA, a.k.a. 29 U.S.C. § 213(a)(1), provides an “exemption” from both minimum wage and overtime pay for certain categories of so-called “white collar” employees — namely, employees working as bona fide executive, administrative, professional, or outside sales employees. Section 13(a)(1) and Section 13(a)(17) also exempt certain categories of computer employees.
To qualify for a white collar exemption, employees must be paid on a salary basis at not less than $684 per week (as of January 1, 2020) and have job duties that satisfy certain requirements. Importantly, job titles do not determine whether an employee is exempt from the FLSA. For an employee to be exempt, her actual real-life job duties and salary must meet all the requirements of the FLSA and the Department of Labor’s implementing regulations.
This post will focus on the exemption for executive employees. The Department of Labor is also an excellent resource for information about the executive employee exemption. The DOL’s implementing regulations with respect to the executive employee exemption are generally located at 29 CFR §§ 541.100-106.
Executive Employee Criteria
To qualify for the executive employee exemption (and therefore, not be entitled to receive overtime pay under the FLSA), an employee must meet all of the following requirements:
- The employee must be compensated on a “salary basis” (as defined in 29 CFR § 541.602) at a rate not less than $684 per week (lower amounts apply for non-federal employees in U.S. territories);
- The employee’s primary duty must be management of the enterprise, or management of a customarily recognized department or subdivision of the enterprise;
- The employee must customarily and regularly direct the work of at least two or more other full-time employees or their equivalent; and
- The employee must have the authority to hire or fire other employees, or the employee’s suggestions and recommendations as to the hiring, firing, advancement, promotion or any other change of status of other employees must be given particular weight.
These requirements contain several terms of art, which the Department of Labor has defined in its implementing regulations.
Definition of “Primary Duty”
As used in the FLSA regulations, “primary duty” means the principal, main, major or most important duty that the employee performs. Determination of an employee’s primary duty is based on all the facts in a particular case, with the major emphasis on the character of the employee’s job as a whole. Factors to consider when determining an employee’s primary duty include, without limitation, the relative importance of any exempt duties as compared with other types of duties; the amount of time spent performing exempt work; the employee’s relative freedom from direct supervision; and the relationship between the employee’s salary and the wages paid to other employees for the kind of nonexempt work performed by the employee. 29 CFR § 541.700.
What is Management?
Under the FLSA regulations for executive employees, “management” generally includes, but is not limited to, activities such as interviewing, selecting, and training of employees; setting and adjusting their rates of pay and hours of work; directing the work of employees; maintaining production or sales records for use in supervision or control; appraising employees’ productivity and efficiency for the purpose of recommending promotions or other changes in status; handling employee complaints and grievances; disciplining employees; planning the work; determining the techniques to be used; apportioning the work among the employees; determining the type of materials, supplies, machinery, equipment or tools to be used or merchandise to be bought, stocked and sold; controlling the flow and distribution of materials or merchandise and supplies; providing for the safety and security of the employees or the property; planning and controlling the budget; and monitoring or implementing legal compliance measures. 29 CFR § 541.102.
Department or Subdivision Verses a “Mere Collection of Employees”
The executive employee regulations clarify that the statutory phrase “a customarily recognized department or subdivision” is intended to distinguish between a “mere collection of employees” assigned from time to time to a specific job or series of jobs and a unit with permanent status and function. A customarily recognized department or subdivision must have a permanent status and a continuing function. For example, a large employer’s human resources department might have subdivisions for labor relations, pensions and other benefits, equal employment opportunity, and personnel management, each of which has a permanent status and function. 29 CFR § 541.103.
Customarily and Regularly
The regulations also define the phrase “customarily and regularly.” It means a frequency greater than occasional but less than constant. It includes work “normally and recurrently done every workweek”; it does not include isolated or one-time tasks. 29 CFR § 541.701.
Two or More Other Employees
To qualify as an exempt executive, the employee must customarily and regularly direct the work of “two or more” other employees. The regs delve into the meaning of the phrase “two or more other employees.” It means two full-time employees or their equivalent. For example, one full-time and two half-time employees are equivalent to two full-time employees. The supervision can be distributed among two, three or more employees, but each such employee must customarily and regularly direct the work of two or more other full-time employees or the equivalent. For example, a department with five full-time nonexempt workers may have up to two exempt supervisors if each supervisor directs the work of two of those workers.
An employee who just assists the manager of a particular department and supervises two or more employees only in the actual manager’s absence does not meet this requirement for the executive exemption.
Significantly, hours worked by an employee cannot be credited more than once for different executives. Thus, a shared responsibility for the supervision of the same two employees in the same department does not satisfy this requirement. However, a full-time employee who works four hours for one supervisor and four hours for a different supervisor, for example, can be credited as a half-time employee for both supervisors. 29 CFR § 541.104.
What is Particular Weight?
If the putative executive cannot hire or fire other employees, then to qualify for the exemption the employee’s suggestions and recommendations as to the hiring, firing, advancement, promotion or any other change of status of other employees must be given “particular weight.”
The regs attempt to define “particular weight.” To determine whether a putative executive’s suggestions and recommendations about changes in employment status are given particular weight, factors to consider include, but are not limited to, whether it is part of the employee’s job duties to make such suggestions and recommendations, and the frequency with which such suggestions and recommendations are made, requested, and relied upon.
Generally, an executive’s suggestions and recommendations must pertain to employees whom the executive customarily and regularly directs. It does not include occasional suggestions about the change in status of a co-worker. An employee’s suggestions and recommendations may still be deemed to have “particular weight” even if a higher-level manager’s recommendation has more importance and even if the employee does not have the authority to make the ultimate decision as to the employee’s change in status. 29 CFR § 541.105.
Special Exemption for Business Owners
The executive regulations establish a special exemption for business owners. Under that rule, an employee who owns at least a bona fide 20-percent equity interest in the enterprise in which she is employed, regardless of the type of business organization, and who is actively engaged in its management, is considered a bona fide exempt executive. The salary requirements for executives do not apply to those who qualify as business owners under this regulation.
Highly Compensated Employees
Highly compensated employees performing office or non-manual work and paid total annual compensation of $107,432 or more (which, as of January 1, 2020, must include at least $684 per week paid on a salary or fee basis) are exempt from the FLSA if they “customarily and regularly” perform at least one of the duties of an exempt executive, administrative or professional employee. 29 CFR § 541.601.
As noted above, the term “customarily and regularly” means a frequency that must be “greater than occasional” but which “may be less than constant.” It includes work “normally and recurrently done every workweek”; it does not include isolated or one-time tasks. 29 CFR § 541.701.
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