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 professional employees. There are three general types of exempt professional employees: learned professionals, creative professionals, or teaching professionals. The Department of Labor is also an excellent resource for information about the professional employee exemption. The DOL’s implementing regulations with respect to the professional employee exemption are generally located at 29 CFR §§ 541.300-304.

Learned Professional Exemption 

To qualify for the learned professional employee exemption (and therefore, not be entitled to receive overtime pay under the FLSA), an employee must be compensated on a salary or fee basis (as defined in the regulations) at a rate not less than $684 per week, and meet all of the following requirements:

A. The employee’s primary duty must be the performance of work requiring advanced knowledge in a field of science or learning customarily acquired by a prolonged course of specialized intellectual instruction. This primary duty test has three elements:

  1. The employee must perform work requiring advanced knowledge;
  1. The advanced knowledge must be in a field of science or learning; and
  2. The advanced knowledge must be customarily acquired by a prolonged course of specialized intellectual instruction. 

29 CFR § 541.301(a)

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.

Work Requiring Advanced Knowledge 

The regs define “work requiring advanced knowledge” as work which is “predominantly intellectual” in character, and which includes work requiring the “consistent exercise of discretion and judgment.” Professional work is therefore distinguished from work involving routine mental, manual, mechanical or physical work. A professional employee generally uses the advanced knowledge to analyze, interpret or make deductions from varying facts or circumstances. Advanced knowledge cannot be attained at the high school level. 29 CFR § 541.301(b).

Field of Science or Learning 

The phrase “fields of science or learning” includes the professions of law, medicine, theology, accounting, actuarial computation, engineering, architecture, teaching, various types of physical, chemical and biological sciences, pharmacy and other occupations that have a recognized professional status as distinguished from the mechanical arts or skilled trades. The regs make this distinction where the knowledge involved in a mechanical arts or skilled trades could be of a fairly advanced type, but is not in a field of science or learning. 29 CFR § 541.301(c).

Customarily Acquired by a Prolonged Course of Specialized Intellectual Instruction 

The phrase “customarily acquired by a prolonged course of specialized intellectual instruction”  restricts the learned professional exemption to professions where specialized academic training is a standard prerequisite for entrance into the profession. The regs indicate the best prima facie evidence that an employee meets this requirement is possession of the appropriate academic degree. 

However, the word “customarily” means the exemption may also be available to employees in such professions who have substantially the same knowledge level and perform substantially the same work as the degreed employees, but who attained the advanced knowledge through a combination of work experience and intellectual instruction. Thus, for example, the learned professional exemption may be available to the occasional lawyer who did not go to law school, or the occasional chemist who does not have a degree in chemistry. 

On the other hand, the regs indicate the learned professional exemption is not available for occupations that customarily may be performed with only the general knowledge acquired by an academic degree in any field, with knowledge acquired through an apprenticeship, or with training in the performance of routine mental, manual, mechanical or physical processes. 

The learned professional exemption also does not apply to occupations in which most employees acquire their skill by experience rather than by advanced specialized intellectual instruction. 29 CFR § 541.301(d).

Examples Applying the Learned Professional Exemption

The regulations discuss several categories of employees whose duties may or may not qualify for the learned professional exemption. For example, depending on the circumstances and levels of academic study, degrees, and certification, registered or certified medical technologists, registered nurses, dental hygienists, physician assistants, certified public accountants, executive or sous chefs, athletic trainers, and licensed funeral directors and embalmers may meet the duties requirement for the learned professional exemption. 

On the other hand, licensed practical nurses, accounting clerks, bookkeepers, and cooks or chefs without culinary arts degrees, paralegals and legal assistants, generally do not meet the duties requirement for this exemption. 29 CFR § 541.301(e).

Practice of Law or Medicine 

The regs further provide that an employee holding a valid license or certificate permitting the practice of law or medicine is exempt if the employee is actually engaged in such a practice. An employee who holds the requisite academic degree for the general practice of medicine is also exempt if he or she is engaged in an internship or resident program for the profession. 

The salary and salary basis requirements do not apply to bona fide practitioners of law or medicine. 29 CFR § 541.304.

Creative Professional Employee Exemption

To qualify for the creative professional employee exemption (and therefore, not be entitled to receive overtime pay under the FLSA), an employee must be compensated on a salary or fee basis (as defined in the regulations) at a rate not less than $684 per week, and meet all of the following requirements:

  1. The employee’s primary duty must be the performance of work requiring invention, imagination, originality or talent in a recognized field of artistic or creative endeavor (as opposed to routine mental, manual, mechanical or physical work). 

The exemption does not apply to work which can be produced by a person with general manual or intellectual ability and training. 29 CFR § 541.302(a).

Recognized Field of Artistic or Creative Endeavor 

To qualify for the exemption as a creative professional, the employee’s work must be performed “in a recognized field of artistic or creative endeavor.” This includes such fields as music, writing, acting and the graphic arts. 29 CFR § 541.302(b).

Invention, Imagination, Originality or Talent 

The requirement of “invention, imagination, originality or talent” distinguishes the creative professions from work that primarily depends on intelligence, diligence and accuracy. The duties of employees vary widely, and exemption as a creative professional depends on the extent of the invention, imagination, originality or talent exercised by the employee. Determination of exempt creative professional status, therefore, must be made on a case-by-case basis. 

As explained in the regs, this requirement generally is met by actors, musicians, composers, conductors, and soloists; painters who at most are given the subject matter of their painting; cartoonists who are merely told the title or underlying concept of a cartoon and must rely on their own creative ability to express the concept; essayists, novelists, short-story writers and screen-play writers who choose their own subjects and hand in a finished piece of work to their employers (the majority of such persons are, of course, not employees but self-employed); and persons holding the more responsible writing positions in advertising agencies. 

This requirement generally is not met by a person who is employed as a copyist, as an “animator” of motion-picture cartoons, or as a retoucher of photographs, since such work is not properly described as creative in character. 29 CFR § 541.302(c).

Journalists and Reporters

Journalists may satisfy the duties requirements for the creative professional exemption if their primary duty is work requiring invention, imagination, originality or talent (as opposed to work which depends primarily on intelligence, diligence and accuracy). 

Employees of newspapers, magazines, television and other media are not exempt creative professionals if they only collect, organize and record information that is routine or already public, or if they do not contribute a unique interpretation or analysis to a news product. 

Thus, for example, newspaper reporters who simply rewrite press releases or who write standard recounts of public information by gathering facts on routine community events are not exempt creative professionals. Reporters also do not qualify as exempt creative professionals if their work product is subject to substantial control by the employer. 

However, journalists may qualify as exempt creative professionals if their primary duty is performing on the air in radio, television or other electronic media; conducting investigative interviews; analyzing or interpreting public events; writing editorials, opinion columns or other commentary; or acting as a narrator or commentator. 29 CFR § 541.302(d).

Teaching Professional Employee Exemption

The professional employee exemption is also available to teachers, if their primary duty is teaching, tutoring, instructing or lecturing in the activity of imparting knowledge, and if they are employed and engaged in this activity as a teacher in an educational establishment. The term “educational establishment” is defined in 29 CFR § 541.204(b).

Exempt teachers include, but are not limited to: Regular academic teachers; teachers of kindergarten or nursery school; teachers of gifted or disabled children; teachers of skilled and semi-skilled trades and occupations; teachers engaged in automobile driving instruction; aircraft flight instructors; home economics teachers; and vocal or instrumental music instructors. 29 CFR § 541.303(b).

Faculty members who are engaged as teachers but also spend a considerable amount of their time in extracurricular activities such as coaching athletic teams or acting as moderators or advisors in such areas as drama, speech, debate or journalism are engaged in teaching. 29 CFR § 541.303(b).

The regs further provide that having an elementary or secondary teacher’s certificate provides a clear means of identifying the individuals contemplated as being within the scope of the exemption for teaching professionals. Teachers who possess a teaching certificate generally qualify for the exemption regardless of the terminology (e.g., permanent, conditional, standard, provisional, temporary, emergency, or unlimited) used by the State to refer to different kinds of certificates. However, private schools and public schools are not uniform in requiring a certificate for employment as an elementary or secondary school teacher, and a teacher’s certificate is not generally necessary for employment in institutions of higher education or other educational establishments. Therefore, a teacher who is not certified may be considered for exemption, provided that such individual is employed as a teacher by the employing school or school system. 29 CFR § 541.303(c).

The salary and salary basis requirements do not apply to bona fide teachers. Having a primary duty of teaching, tutoring, instructing or lecturing in the activity of imparting knowledge includes, by its very nature, exercising discretion and judgment. 29 CFR § 541.303(d).

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.

“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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