Salary Threshold Increases Require Employer Review Of Salaried Worker FLSA Exemption Qualification

Beginning January 1, 2020, only employees earning at least $684 per week (equivalent to $35,568 per year for a full year worker) can qualify for payment on a salaried basis as employees exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) minimum wage and overtime requirements under the “White Collar Exemption” for executive, administrative, professional, outside sales, computer employees and at least $107, 342 per year to qualify as exempt from the minimum wage and overtime requirements as a “highly compensated employee” (“HCE”). 

As the Department estimates that these changes will cause more than 1.3 million additional workers to qualify for minimum wage and overtime pay, employers who  treat any employees as exempt from FLSA overtime, minimum wage and recordkeeping requirements based on the FLSA White Collar or HCE Exemption should reconfirm continued applicability of the exemption and take other steps in preparation for the January 1 rule change.

White Collar & HCE Exemption Salary Threshold Increase On  January 1, 2020

A final rule announced by the U.S. Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division (“WHD”) on September 24, 2019 and currently awaiting assignment for official publication in the Federal Register will raise the minimum earnings threshold that WHD regulations require as a prerequisite to an employer treating an employee as exempt from the FLSA under the White Collar Exemption for the first time since 2004[1]. WHD estimates that the increase in the salary threshold implemented by the final rule will make 1.2 million additional workers entitled to minimum wage and overtime pay and that an additional 101,800 workers will be entitled to overtime pay as a result of the increase to the HCE compensation level.

Under the final rule, beginning January 1, 2020, the salary threshold amount for the White Collar Exemption will increase from $455 per week to $684 per week.

In addition to these changes in the White Collar Exemption salary threshold, the final rule also will:

  • Increase the total annual compensation level for “highly compensated employees (HCE)” from the currently-enforced level of $100,000 to $107,432 per year;
  • Revise the special salary levels for workers in U.S. territories and in the motion picture industry as follows:
    • Maintain the current special salary level of $380 per week for American Samoa because minimum wage rates there have remained lower than the federal minimum wage;
    • Set a special salary level of $455 per week for employees in Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands; and
    • Increase the special “base rate” threshold for employees in the motion picture producing industry. proportionally to the increase in the standard salary level test, resulting in a new base rate of $1,043 per week (or a proportionate amount based on the number of days worked).
  • Permit nondiscretionary bonuses and incentive payments (including commissions) paid at least annually to an employee to be counted as compensation to the employee to satisfy up to 10% of the standard White Collar Exemption salary threshold ($68.40 per week) for purposes of determining if the employee earns sufficient compensation to satisfy the salary threshold for the White Collar Exemption but not the HCE Exemption; and
  • Announce the intention by the WHD to increase these threshold amounts more regularly in response to inflation through notice and rulemaking, while abandoning a prior proposal to accomplish these updates automatically through inflation indexing.

Treatment of Nondiscretionary Bonuses and Incentive Payments

In the final rule, in recognition of evolving pay practices, the Department also permits employers to use nondiscretionary bonuses and incentive payments to satisfy up to 10 percent of the standard salary level. For employers to credit nondiscretionary bonuses and incentive payments toward a portion of the standard salary level test, they must make such payments on an annual or more frequent basis.  This is just one of the fringe benefit related refinements WHD recently made or proposed to make  to its regulations that impact the implications of noncash compensation and other perks in the past couple years. See e.g., Proposed FLSA Base Pay Rule Clarifies Overtime Treatment Of Perks.  Understanding the existing and proposed rules and enforcement positions is important for employers to properly manage their FLSA obligations.  

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 Department permits the employer to make a “catch-up” payment within one pay period of the end of the 52-week period. This payment may be up to 10 percent of the total standard salary level for the preceding 52-week period. Any such catch-up payment will count only toward the prior year’s salary amount and not toward the salary amount in the year in which it is paid

Employer Actions Required

Employers paying or planning to any employee on a salaried basis in reliance upon the employer’s treatment of that employee as covered by the White Collar Exemption or HCE Exemption to the FLSA minimum wage and overtime rules should evaluate whether that employee continues to qualify for coverage under the applicable exemption taking into account the modifications implemented by the final rule.  By December 31, 2020, employers of any employee currently classified and paid on a salaried basis in reliance upon the White Collar or HCE Exemptions will need to:

  • Confirm whether the employee earns sufficient compensation to qualify for continued coverage by the applicable exemption taking into account the changes implemented by the final rule;
  • For employees disqualified for continued classification as exempt due to the increase in the required salary threshold, either increase the compensation that the employer pays the employee to meet the increased threshold or reclassify as nonexempt and treat the disqualified employee as covered by the FLSA minimum wage, overtime, timekeeping and recordkeeping requirements no later than January 1, 2020; and
  • For any employee who will not qualify for exemption after January 1, 2020, implement necessary procedures to ensure that the applicable time and other recordkeeping, minimum wage and overtime requirements are met.

Employers anticipating that they will employ employees impacted by the changes of the final rule also generally will want to take into account these impending changes when reviewing and designing their base, incentive and other compensation and benefit practices for these employees as well as in compensation, budget, product or service bidding and contracting and other impacted business practices.  

When conducting this analysis and planning employers should keep in mind that while the final rule allows employers satisfy up to 10% of the salary threshold for the White Collar Exemption with nondiscretionary bonuses and incentive payments paid to the employee, nondiscretionary bonuses and incentive payments will not count as compensation for purposes of the HCE threshold.  Employers also should carefully review existing guidance to verify their understanding of what bonuses and incentive payments qualify as nondiscretionary for purposes of the WHD regulations as employers frequently underestimate and inappropriately fail to take into account bonus or other incentive compensation when calculating overtime that WHD views as nondiscretionary and therefore required to be included when calculating and paying overtime.

Additionally, employers relying upon the White Collar Exemption to treat employees as exempt from the FMLA are encouraged to reconfirm that any employee paid on a salary basis otherwise continues to fulfill all conditions required to qualify for that exemption.  WHD enforcement history contains an already voluiminous and continuously growing list of employers nailed for FLSA minimum wage and overtime violations due to their reliance upon overly optimistic or otherwise inappropriate determinations regarding the applicability of the White Collar Exemption to various members of their workforces.  Employers should keep in mind that employers bear the burden of proof when raising the White Collar or other exemptions as a defense to a minimum wage, overtime, recordkeeping or other FMLA violation.

Employers staffing or making use of labor or services provided by employee leasing, temporary staffing, day labor, contractors, or other contingent worker sources also are encouraged to keep in mind the growing aggressiveness by WHD and private litigants in challenging and obtaining reclassification of contingent workers as employees of the businesses receiving these services, holding the recipient of these contingent worker services liable as a joint employer or both.  Given the growth in both the frequency and success of these challenges, businesses using contingent workforce workers generally should (1) realistically reevaluate their potential exposure to minimum wage and overtime liability from services received from contingent workers; and (2) pursue opportunities to mitigate these exposures by reconfiguring these relationships, contracting for assurances and access to documentation necessary to prove that the contingent workforce provider properly classifies and pays minimum wage and overtime and maintains time and other records, and ensuring that the business can access records that it likely would need to investigate and defend itself against potential FLSA liability claims that the WHD or a private litigant might assert against it with regard to services performed by contingent workers.

Need more information about this article  or have questions about your company’s responsibilities under the FLSA  or other wage and hour, leave or other workforce, compensation or employee benefit concerns?   You can contact the author of this update, Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, by e-mail here or telephone her at (214) 452.8297.

About the Author

Recognized by her peers as a Martindale-Hubble “AV-Preeminent” (Top 1%) and “Top Rated Lawyer” with special recognition LexisNexis® Martindale-Hubbell® as “LEGAL LEADER™ Texas Top Rated Lawyer” in Labor and Employment Law and Health Law; as among the “Best Lawyers In Dallas” for her work in the fields of “Labor & Employment,” “Tax: ERISA & Employee Benefits,” “Health Care” and “Business and Commercial Law” by D Magazine, and a Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Counsel, Cynthia Marcotte Stamer is a practicing attorney board certified in labor and employment law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization and management consultant, author, public policy advocate and public speaker widely known for 30+ years of management focused employment, compensation and employee benefits and other workforce and performance management, public policy leadership and advocacy, coaching, teachings, and publications.

Highly valued for using her detailed legal and operational knowledge and experience to help clients find and implement pragmatic strategies and solutions, Ms. Stamer’s clients include health industry, employee benefit, insurance and financial services and a diverse array of other employers and other workforce management organizations; employer, union, association, government and other insured and self-insured health and other employee benefit plan sponsors, benefit plans, fiduciaries, administrators, and other plan vendors;   domestic and international public and private health care, education and other community service and care organizations; managed care organizations; insurers, third-party administrative services organizations and other payer organizations;  and other private and government organizations and their management leaders.

Throughout her 30 plus year career, Ms. Stamer has continuously worked with these and other management clients to design, implement, document, administer and defend hiring, performance management, compensation, promotion, demotion, discipline, reduction in force and other workforce, employee benefit, insurance and risk management, health and safety, and other programs, products and solutions, and practices; establish and administer compliance and risk management policies; manage labor-management relations, comply with requirements, investigate and respond to government, accreditation and quality organizations, regulatory and contractual audits, private litigation and other federal and state reviews, investigations and enforcement actions; evaluate and influence legislative and regulatory reforms and other regulatory and public policy advocacy; prepare and present training and discipline;  handle workforce and related change management associated with mergers, acquisitions, reductions in force, re-engineering, and other change management; and a host of other workforce related concerns on both a real-time, “on demand” basis with crisis preparedness, intervention and response as well as ongoing engagements on compliance and risk management; plan and program design; vendor and employee credentialing, selection, contracting, performance management and other dealings; strategic planning; policy, program, product and services development and innovation; mergers, acquisitions, bankruptcy and other crisis and change management; management, and other opportunities and challenges arising in the course of workforce and other operations management to improve performance while managing workforce, compensation and benefits and other legal and operational liability and performance.

A former lead consultant to the Government of Bolivia on its Pension Privatization Project with extensive domestic and international public policy concerns in pensions, healthcare, workforce, immigration, tax, education and other areas, Ms. Stamer has been extensively involved in U.S. federal, state and local health care and other legislative and regulatory reform impacting these concerns throughout her career. Her public policy and regulatory affairs experience encompasses advising and representing domestic and multinational private sector health, insurance, employee benefit, employer, staffing and other outsourced service providers, and other clients in dealings with Congress, state legislatures, and federal, state and local regulators and government entities, as well as providing advice and input to U.S. and foreign government leaders on these and other policy concerns.

Current ABA Intellectual Property Section Law Practice Management Committee Chair;  ABA International Section Life Sciences & Health Committee Vice Chair; ABA RPTE Section Employee Benefits & Other Compensation Group Past Group Chair and a current or past Chair of various of its committees, ABA Health Law Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group Past Chair and , a Fellow in the American Bar Foundation and the Texas Bar Foundation and the author of a multitude of highly regarded publications on wage and hour and other labor and employment, compensation and benefits, performance management and other related concerns, Ms. Stamer also is widely recognized for her extensive authorship, work and leadership on leading edge employment, health care, employee benefits and other compensation, benefits, health and safety, insurance and other legal and operational compliance and risk management, government and regulatory affairs and operations concerns.

For more information about Ms. Stamer or her health industry and other experience and involvements, see here or contact Ms. Stamer via telephone at (214) 452-8297 or via e-mail here.

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[1] A 2016 final rule to change the overtime thresholds was enjoined by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas on November 22, 2016, and was subsequently invalidated by that court. As of November 6, 2017, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit has held the appeal in abeyance pending further rulemaking regarding a revised salary threshold. As the 2016 final rule was invalidated, the Department has consistently enforced the 2004 level throughout the last 15 years.


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