DOL Finalizes New Salary Minimum

Update: This post from March 2019 has been updated as of September 24, 2019, because on that day the DOL issued the final salary minimum rule, which changed a couple of important items from what was proposed six months ago.

A new federal overtime rule that has been finalized by the U.S. Department of Labor will become effective on January 1, 2020, and employers need to start preparing now to get into compliance.

The final rule requires employers to pay a higher minimum salary to those employees who meet certain white-collar exemptions to the overtime rules of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”). Right now, an employer can pay a salaried exempt employee as little as $455 per week ($23,606 annually) and still claim the exemption (and not pay that person overtime) as long as the employee is performing exempt duties, such as executive work or professional work.

On January 1, 2020, the final minimum salary threshold for exempt employees is going to increase to $684 per week ($35,568) annually)(the proposed rule was $5 per week less, so we thought that the annual number was going to be $35,308). That means that if you have any employee whom you are paying on salary in an amount less than $35,568 per year, you as an employer need to spend the rest of 2019 deciding if you will provide that employee with a raise or reclassify that employee as non-exempt and move him to an hourly rate and pay him overtime when he clocks more than 40 hours in any one workweek.

In addition to meeting this increased salary level to $35,568 per year, anyone you are paying on a salary must also actually perform the duties of an exempt employee (the white-collar exemptions: executive, a professional or an administrator). These duties tests are much more difficult to meet than most people think, so don’t just assume that all of your salaried employees are actually exempt. For example, not every “manager” is an “executive exempt employee”, who under the FLSA must have the power to hire and fire and must supervise at least 2 full-time employees, as well as being in charge of a recognizable store, division or branch of your business.

During the rest of 2019, you have time to audit your pay practices to know who you are paying on salary, review their actual job duties to assure that they actually qualify for one of the exemptions, and then confirm that those salaried employees are making at least $684 per week. As you are going through this process, remember that the Equal Pay Act also applies to your salary decisions and you must not violate it when trying to comply with the DOL’s new salary minimum.

And yes, the DOL does measure the salary basis in weekly increments, so the employee must make at least $684 every week, not just averaged out over the year. The final rule does provide employers the ability to make up 10% of the salary basis test with non-discretionary bonuses and commissions. So, if you pay an executive, administrator or professional employee no less than $32,011.20 in yearly salary (divided by 52 weeks) and then the employee earns another $3,556.80 annually in non-discretionary bonuses and commissions (paid on at least a quarterly basis), you will not be in violation of the final rule.

If this proposal gives you a sense of déjà vu, that’s because we went through this process in 2016 when the DOL proposed an increase of the minimum salary for exempt employees of $913 per week ($47,476 annually). That rule was enjoined by a federal judge in East Texas just before it was to take effect and then died in the courts and under the new administration. No such messy reprieve is expected this time with this lower salary threshold, so businesses need to start talking now about properly paying their salaried employees in 2020.

Employer should also be aware that the “highly compensated employee” exemption under the final rule for 2020 has slightly increased. That exemption currently says that any employee making a salary of at least $100,000.00 per year is exempt as long as the employee is performing non-manual work and that employee performs at least one other exempt duty customarily and regularly. The final rule raises that salary threshold for highly-compensated employees to $107,432 per year (the proposed rule was to raise the highly-compensated employee salary minimum to $147,432, which was universally criticized and so reduced by $40,000).

Obviously, if you have to move an employee from exempt status to non-exempt status because of this salary minimum change, you should find a way to clearly communicate that this change is not a demotion, but simply a change in a governmental regulation. You’ll also need to train anyone moving from exempt status to non-exempt status on your timekeeping rules so that all time worked is properly recorded.

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