On September 24, 2019, the U.S. Department of Labor announced a final rule to increase the salary threshold necessary to exempt executive, administrative and professional employees from the Fair Labor Standard Act’s (FLSA) minimum wage and overtime pay requirements. The final rule raises the annual salary threshold from $23,660 (or $455 per week) to $35,568 (or $684 per week). The FLSA requires covered employers to pay employees a minimum wage and, for employees who work more than 40 hours in a week, overtime premium pay of at least 1.5 times the regular rate of pay. Section 13(a)(1) of the FLSA, commonly referred to as the “white collar” or “EAP” exemption, exempts from these minimum wage and overtime pay requirements “any employee employed in a bona fide executive, administrative, or professional capacity.” Now for an employee to qualify for one of the EAP exemptions, generally, that employee has to be paid on a salary basis and earn at least $35,568 per year or $684 per week. The final rule becomes effective January 1, 2020.
The final rule also allows employers to use non-discretionary bonuses and incentive payments (including commissions) to satisfy up to ten percent of the standard salary level as long as such payments are paid annually or on a more frequent basis. In addition, if an employee does not earn enough in nondiscretionary bonus or incentive payments in a given year (52-week period) to retain his or her exempt status, the employer may make a “catch-up” payment up to ten percent of the total salary level for the preceding 52-week period. This “catch-up” payment must be paid within one pay period following the end of the 52-week period. In plain terms, each pay period an employer must pay the EAP employee on a salary basis at least 90 percent of the standard salary level and, if at the end of the 52-week period the sum of the salary paid plus the nondiscretionary bonuses and incentive payments (including commissions) paid does not equal the standard salary level for the 52-week period, the employer has one pay period to make up for the shortfall (up to 10 percent of the required salary level). Any such catch-up payment will count only toward the previous 52-week period’s salary amount and not toward the salary amount in the 52-week period in which it was paid.
Today’s final rule is the product of the Trump administration’s efforts to reset the Obama administration’s 2016 final rule that had established the salary threshold at $47,476 per year or $913 per week. The Obama administration’s controversial final rule was struck down on November 22, 2016 by a federal district court in Texas because it “makes overtime status depend predominately on a minimum salary level, thereby supplanting an analysis of an employee’s job duties.” An appeal of that decision is still pending before the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. However, given the release of today’s final rule, the DOL will rescind the Obama administration’s 2016 final rule making the pending appeal moot.
The final rule also raises the total annual compensation requirement for “highly compensated employees” (HCE) from the currently enforced level of $100,000 per year to $107,432 per year. The HCE salary level of $107,432 is set at the 80th percentile of full-time salaried workers nationally using updated 2018/2019 salary data. However, Wisconsin employers should note that Wisconsin law does not recognize the HCE exemption, and, as a result, Wisconsin employers should not rely or utilize this exemption when classifying employees for wage and hour purposes.
Finally, the DOL’s proposed rule published on March 7, 2019 rejected the Obama administration’s 2016 rule that provided for automatic adjusting every three years of the salary threshold for the EAP exemptions. Instead, the DOL’s March, 2019 proposed rule rejected automatic adjusting and favored that the Secretary of Labor review the salary threshold every four years preceded by a period of public comment. The DOL’s final rule, however, reaffirmed the DOL’s intent to update the standard salary level and HCE total annual compensation threshold more regularly in the future using notice and comment rulemaking, but declined to make a commitment to do so every four years believing that prevailing economic conditions, rather than fixed timelines, should drive future updates.