Court Ruling Provides Reminder That Exempt Employees Must Be Paid on a “Salary Basis”
There has been a lot of litigation in California concerning the exempt status of various categories of employees, with plaintiffs’ attorneys filing class action after class action seeking to recover four plus years of overtime compensation stemming from employers allegedly misclassifying employees as exempt from overtime compensation. Typically, these claims are premised on an argument that the employees’ job duties (as opposed to the amount or manner of compensation paid to the employees) do not meet the test for exemption. A decision hand down today by a California Court of Appeal serves as a reminder that failure to pay exempt employees on a salary basis also destroys exempt status, even if the employees’ job duties satisfy the test for exemption.
In Negri v. Koning & Assoc., the plaintiff was an insurance adjuster who was paid $29 per hour for his work. He did not have any guaranteed and predetermined minimum salary that he would be paid regardless of hours worked. In actual practice, the plaintiff always worked at least 40 hours per week and was paid $29 per hour for each of those hours worked (and more if he worked more than 40 hours). Thus, the employee’s total compensation each week was far more than double the minimum wage (the minimum threshold amount of compensation to qualify for exempt status generally in California). Nonetheless, the employee sued his employer, claiming he was improperly classified as exempt and was owed overtime compensation. [He alleged he typically worked over 60 hours per week.] The employer argued the employee was properly classified as exempt based on his job duties and compensation. The trial court ruled in favor of the employer, citing federal authorities generally determining that insurance adjusters are exempt administrative employees. The employee appealed.
The appellate court reversed, but wisely did not want to touch the issue of whether the employee’s job duties met the test for the administrative exemption in California. [California courts have been all over the map on interpretation and application of the administrative exemption as to claims adjusters and as to many other categories of employees.] Instead, the court analyzed whether the employee’s compensation met the salary basis test necessary for exempt status. The court explained that payment on a salary basis requires that an employee be paid a guaranteed predetermined amount (of at least twice the minimum wage) that is not subject to reduction based on quantity or quality of work. The court held that the employer’s method of paying this employee did not meet this salary basis test because the employee was simply paid hourly without any guaranteed minimum salary. Thus, hypothetically, if the employee worked only a few hours in a week, his total compensation would be less than double the minimum wage because there was no guaranteed minimum salary in place. The employer argued that this hypothetical scenario never happened and that the employee always worked and was paid for at least 40 hours and so there was no “actual reduction” based on quantity worked. As such, the employer argued that the salary basis test was still satisfied as to this employee. The court disagreed and held that there must be a guaranteed minimum salary in place in order for an employee to be deemed paid on a salary basis and qualify for exempt status. The court clarified that it is permissible for an employer to pay an employee compensation over and above the guaranteed minimum without destroying exempt status, but there must at least be a guaranteed minimum in place in the first instance.
This case serves as a cautious reminder for employers who pay exempt employees using hourly forms of compensation. While this is generally permissible, there must be an agreement in place that the employee will receive a guaranteed minimum salary of at least double the minimum wage (California employees) for full-time employment. Otherwise, exempt status can be successfully challenged, with back overtime owed (typically at an alarming overtime rate given the higher rate of compensation paid to employees classified as exempt).