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Rules Will Not Take Effect On December 1; Future Thereafter Uncertain
In a dramatic last-minute development, a federal judge in Texas on Tuesday (11/22/16) blocked the U.S. Department of Labor’s (DOL) overtime rule from taking effect on December 1. The judge issued a preliminary injunction preventing the rules from being implemented on a nationwide basis.
The fate of the overtime rules is now uncertain. The Trump administration will take over the DOL in less than two months’ time, and the incoming administration has repeatedly indicated that it wants to eliminate unnecessary regulations hampering the business community. Unless an appeals court reverses course in the next several weeks and breathes new life into the rules, it is quite possible that the rules will be further delayed, completely overhauled, or altogether scrapped once President Trump takes office.
Almost immediately, an outcry sprung from the business community, especially those advocating on behalf of small businesses. By doubling the existing salary threshold, the DOL’s actions would likely reduce the proportion of exempt workers sharply while increasing the compensation of many who will remain exempt, rather than engaging in the fundamentally definition process called for under the FLSA. As many pointed out, manipulating exemption requirements to “give employees a raise” has never been an authorized or legitimate pursuit.
Moreover, publishing what amounts to an automatic “update” to the minimum salary threshold is something that has never before happened in the more-than-75-year history of the FLSA exemptions. This departs from the prior DOL practice of engaging in what should instead ultimately be a qualitative evaluation that would take into account a variety of considerations.
The challengers argued that the DOL did not properly carry out its responsibility under the FLSA to define these exemptions, failing to take into account the duties of white-collar workers as the best indicator for whether threshold increases were needed. The plaintiffs also argued that the automatic indexing mechanism which would ratchet up the salary levels every three years was improper because it would ignore current economic conditions or the effect on public and private resources.
The judge recognized that, for 75 years, the salary levels that served as part of the DOL’s overtime exemption test acted as a floor and not a ceiling. He said during last week’s oral argument the new rule’s proposed salary jump was “a much more drastic change.” During that argument, in fact, he pointed out that the proposed substantial increase in the salary threshold could lead to inconsistent treatment of workers who each fulfill white collar duties but are paid differently. An example is a convenience store manager who clearly acts as an executive and who is paid a salary annualizing to only $47,000 a year, for example, would be treated differently than a similarly situated manager who is paid a salary equating to $47,500 a year.
Assuming that the injunction survives the remainder of President Obama’s term, it is difficult to predict what President Trump will do with the rules once in the White House. Perhaps President Trump will direct his DOL to commence a new rulemaking process, subject to notice and comment, with the goals of setting lower thresholds for the salary requirement and eliminating the three-year update, among other changes. How long and what form such a process would take, and what could or would be done in the meantime, are currently unpredictable.
At the same time, a series of measures have been introduced in Congress hoping to prevent or stall the rules changes. While one of the proposed legislative changes would scrap the increases altogether, another proposed change would delay implementation for a period of time to provide a longer period of preparation. Still, another would push the date that the full increase would take effect to 2019, introducing more forgiving gradual increases on an annual basis for the next three years.
The fate of these measures is similarly uncertain at present. Even if any of these measures were fast-tracked, approved by Congress, and signed by President Obama before he leaves office, it is unclear whether they would ever take effect given the nature of the current litigation.
If you had been waiting until December 1 to implement the changes, you have the option of putting any alterations on ice and awaiting a final determination on the fate of the rules. If you do so, you might consider communicating to your workforce that the expected changes are going to be delayed given today’s court ruling, and let them know that you will continue to monitor the situation and make adjustments when and if appropriate.
We will track these developments and provide updates as issued.
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.