DOL issues finalized overtime regulation

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The DOL on Tuesday released its highly anticipated finalized overtime rule, raising the minimum salary level to $35,568 per year for a full-year worker to earn overtime wages.

“Today’s rule is a thoughtful product informed by public comment, listening sessions and long-standing calculations,” Wage and Hour Division Administrator Cheryl Stanton says in a statement. “The DOL’s wage and hour division now turns to help employers comply and ensure that workers will be receiving their overtime pay.”

The final rule, effective Jan. 1, 2020, updates the earnings thresholds necessary to exempt executive, administrative or professional employees from the FLSA’s minimum wage and overtime pay requirements, and allows employers to count a portion of certain bonuses (and commissions) toward meeting the salary level.

The new thresholds account for growth in employee earnings since the currently enforced thresholds were set in 2004. In the final rule, the department is:

  • Raising the standard salary level from the currently enforced level of $455 to $684 per week (equivalent to $35,568 per year for a full-year worker);
  • Raising the total annual compensation level for highly compensated employees from the currently-enforced level of $100,000 to $107,432 per year;
  • Allowing employers to use nondiscretionary bonuses and incentive payments (including commissions) that are paid at least annually to satisfy up to 10% of the standard salary level, in recognition of evolving pay practices; and
  • Revising the special salary levels for workers in U.S. territories and in the motion picture industry.

This finalized rule is a shift from the previous administration's proposed rule, which would have doubled the salary threshold.

Under the Obama administration, the Labor Department in 2016 raised the minimum salary to roughly $47,000, extending mandatory overtime pay to nearly 4 million U.S. employees. But the following year, a federal judge in Texas ruled that the ceiling was set so high that it could sweep in some management workers who are supposed to be exempt from overtime pay protections. Business groups and 21 Republican-led states then sued, challenging the rule.

The overturning of the 2016 rule that increased the salary level from the 2004 level has created a lot of uncertainty, says Susan Harthill, a partner with Morgan Lewis. The best way to create certainty is to issue a new regulation, which is what the administration's done, Harthill adds.

While the final rule largely tracks the draft, there are two changes that should be noted: the salary level is $5 higher and the highly compensated employee salary level is dramatically reduced from the proposed level, she says.

Also see: 5 tips for handling the overtime rule

“This is an effort to find a middle ground, and while it may be challenged by either or maybe both sides, the DOL’s salary test sets a clear dividing line between employees who must be paid overtime if they work more than 40 hours per week and employees whose eligibility for overtime varies based on their job duties,” Harthill adds.

The DOL estimates 1.3 million employees could now be eligible for overtime pay under this rule (employees who earn between $23,600 and $35,368 no longer qualify for the exemption).

A majority of business groups were critical of Obama’s overtime rule, citing the burdens it placed particularly on small businesses that would be forced to roll out new systems for tracking hours, recordkeeping and reporting.

SHRM, for example, expressed it's opposition to the rule, noting it would have fundamentally changed the rules for employee classification, dramatically increased the salary under which employees are eligible for overtime and provided for automatic increases in the salary level without employer input.

“Today’s announcement finalizing DOL’s overtime rule provides much needed clarity for workplaces," SHRM says in a statement. "This rule marks the first increase to the salary threshold since 2004 and gives employers more flexibility to plan for the future. We appreciate DOL’s willingness to work with SHRM, other organizations and America’s workers to enact an overtime rule that benefits both employers and their employees.”

But the finalized rule still will have implications for employers.

“Education and health services, wholesale and retail trade, and professional and business services, are the most impacted industries, according to DOL, but all industries are potentially impacted,” Harthill, also former DOL deputy solicitor of labor for national operations, adds. “Also often overlooked is the impact on nonprofits and state and local governments, which are subject to the FLSA and often have lower salaries.”

All companies should be taking a close look at their employees to make sure workers are properly classified, but what they do after that will depend entirely on individual business needs, she says. “Some will hire additional employees to reduce the amount of overtime, while others will just pay overtime if their workers in this salary bracket spend more than 40 hours a week on the job.”

Employers who haven’t already reviewed their exempt workforce should do so now, before the Jan. 1 effective date, Harthill advises.

“They can opt to pay overtime, raise salary levels above $35,368, or review and tighten policies to ensure employees do not work more than 40 hours per week,” she says. “There could be job positions that need to be reclassified and that might have a knock-on effect for employees who earn above the new salary level.”

Many employers increased their salaries when DOL issued the 2016 rule, and some states have higher salary levels, so not all businesses will need to make an adjustment. “But even those employers should review their highly compensated employees — they may still be exempt even if they earn less than $107,432 but the analysis will be more complicated,” she adds.

“We did not hear any objections from employers when these rules were initially proposed," adds Jason Hammersla, vice president of communications at the American Benefits Council. "That said, aside from the obvious compensation and payroll tax implications, this rulemaking is significant for employers who include overtime compensation in the formula for retirement plan contributions as it could increase any required employer contributions."

"The change could also affect plans that exclude overtime pay from the plan’s definition of compensation if the new overtime pay causes the plan to become discriminatory in favor of highly compensated employees," he adds.

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