Understanding Exempt vs. Nonexempt Employees in California

We are frequently surprised that many businesses fail to grasp and correctly apply the criteria for determining when an employee can be classified as Exempt from overtime and/or meal and rest break laws. Employers often assume, based on a worker’s position in the organization, or because s/he is paid a salary, that s/he is automatically Exempt. 
We are surprised, not because the standards for determination of Exempt status are straightforward and easy to apply (Sometimes they are not!), but because the consequences of misclassifying an employee as Exempt can be major, including administrative claims or civil lawsuits for unpaid wages, unpaid overtime, failure to provide rest/meal breaks, liquidated damages, waiting time penalties and related damages (including the employee’s attorney’s fees). Have we got your attention?
The Labor Commissioner applies two (2) standards to determine when an employee can be properly classified as Exempt: (1) the Duties Test; and (2) the Salary Threshold. Exempt employees must fit within one of the following limited list of categories: Executive, Administrative, Professional, Computer/Software, Outside Sales, state or county employees, and a few others.
The Duties Test examines the work performed by the employee during the workweek. For example, the Executive Exemption is limited to an employee whose “duties and responsibilities involve the management of the enterprise or a department or subdivision of the enterprise, who customarily and regularly directs the work of two or more other employees, and who has authority to hire or fire other employees or whose views as to the hiring, firing, advancement, promotion or any other change of status of other employees will be given weight, and who customarily and regularly exercises discretion and independent judgment. There is a different Duties Test for each category of Exempt employee.
The Salary Threshold requires one exempt under the Executive Exemption to earn a monthly salary equivalent to no less than two times the state minimum wage for full-time employment. Full-time employment means 40 hours per week. There is a similar Salary Threshold for most other Exempt categories.
Depending on the circumstances, these tests may be easy or difficult to apply regarding a given employee. Additionally, there are traps for unwary with regard to the Salary Threshold where the worker, for example, meets the Salary Threshold most weeks, but falls below it on a given week.
Employers looking to follow best practices should have their Exempt classification decisions reviewed by employment law counsel or, at minimum, someone with significant Human Resources experience, such as an HR Consultant or a member of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) or its affiliate, Professionals in Human Resources Association (PIHRA).
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