After more than 15 months of waiting, the U.S. Department of Labor has issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (“NPRM”) announcing the Department’s intention to shrink dramatically the pool of employees who qualify for exempt status under the Fair Labor Standards Act.
The 295-page NPRM, released June 30, contains a few specific changes to existing DOL regulations: more than doubling the salary threshold for the executive, administrative, and professional exemptions from $455 a week currently to $921 a week (with a plan to increase that number to $970 a week in the final version of the regulation), as well as raising the pay thresholds for certain other exemptions, and building in room for future annual increases. More ominously, the Department invites comment on a host of other issues. This opens the door to many further significant revisions to the regulations in a Final Rule after the Department reviews the public’s comments to the NPRM.
On March 13, 2014, President Obama directed the Secretary of Labor to modernize and streamline the existing overtime regulations for exempt executive, administrative, and professional employees. He said the compensation paid to these employees has not kept pace with America’s economy since the Department last revised regulations in 2004. The President noted that the minimum annual salary level for these exempt classifications under the 2004 regulations is $23,660, which is below the poverty line for a family of four.
Since the President issued his memo, the Department has held meetings with a variety of stakeholders, including employers, workers, trade associations, and other advocates. The Department has raised questions about how the current regulations work and how they can be improved. The discussions have focused on the compensation levels for the exempt classifications as well as the duties required to qualify for exempt status.
The NPRM expressed the Department’s intention to increase the salary threshold for the white-collar exemptions from $455 a week (or $23,660 a year) to $921 a week ($47,892 a year), which the Department expects to revise to $970 a week ($50,440 a year in 2016) when it issues its Final Rule. Under this single change to the regulations, it is estimated that 4.6 million currently exempt employees would lose their exemption right away, with another 500,000 to 1 million currently exempt employees losing exempt status over the next 10 years as a result of the automatic increases to the salary threshold.
The NPRM acknowledges that roughly 25% of all employees currently exempt and subject to the salary basis requirement will be rendered non-exempt under the proposed regs. The Department recognizes that employers are likely to reduce the working hours of currently exempt employees reclassified as a result of these regulations, and that the reduction in hours will probably lead to lower overall pay for these employees.
Related changes in the regs include increasing the annual compensation threshold for exempt highly compensated employees from the present level of $100,000 to a proposed $122,148, as well as raising the exemption threshold for the motion picture producing industry from the present $695 a week to a proposed $1,404 a week for employees compensated on a day-rate basis.
Perhaps not surprisingly, given the likely impact of the proposal, almost all of the NPRM is devoted to economic analysis and justification for the steep increase in the salary thresholds. Nevertheless, the NPRM touches on some other topics as well. The Department states that it is considering, and invites comment on, a wide range of topics, including:
What Comes Next?
The proposed regulations are subject to a 30-day public comment period. Now is the time for any employer or trade association dissatisfied with the proposed regulatory text, or concerned about changes the Department is weighing for inclusion in a Final Rule, to submit comments. The Department has put the regulated public on notice: it is considering sweeping changes to the regulations not described specifically in the proposed regulatory text, such as altering the duties tests for exempt status. Employers may not have another opportunity to comment on the content of a Final Rule.
Following the public comment period, the Department will issue a Final Rule that may add, change, delete, or affirm the regulatory text of the proposal. The Office of Management and Budget will review the Final Rule before publication. This process is likely to take at least six to eight months. A Final Rule is not expected before 2016.