On March 13, 2014, President Barack Obama issued a presidential memorandum directing the Secretary of Labor to “modernize and streamline the existing overtime regulations”.  The Department of Labor (DOL) took action and, in new rules set to become effective Dec. 1, 2016, raised the minimum salary threshold for exempt workers in many categories.  Since then, employers have been gearing up for the change — modifying pay rates, altering job responsibilities, switching formerly exempt employees to hourly and restructuring their workforce.

In response to the new regulations, 21 states and a coalition of business groups filed a federal lawsuit in Texas seeking to prevent the regulations from going into effect. On Tuesday, their wish was granted. The judge (an Obama appointee) issued a nationwide preliminary injunction halting the implementation of the new overtime regulations.

What Does This Mean for Business Owners and HR Professionals? 

It means you can hold off on implementing any changes you planned for compliance for the moment. Though the DOL could file an emergency appeal, the states were smart by suing in Texas. The appeal must go before the conservative judges of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals who we expect will be unlikely to disturb the District Court’s ruling in the short run.

President-elect Trump is vehemently against these regulations and, with a Republican Congress that largely agrees, he has promised to repeal them. Assuming an emergency appeal is unsuccessful, the preliminary injunction then affords Congress and President-elect (then President) Trump a window of opportunity to stop the new regulations from ever taking effect.

Is This Outcome Guaranteed?

Not at all, but it is likely given the views expressed by the incoming administration. If for some reason the new administration does not act and the 5th Circuit chooses to reinstate the regulations they would only  go into effect after the decision is made. If the 5th Circuit does not take on the emergency appeal, the decision will be left to the District Court at a trial some time from now.

For more information on the now halted overtime regulations, click here.

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Businessman working late signing a document or contract in a dark office with a fountain pen by the light of a lamp, close up view of his hands.

For the last year, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) has been working on proposed rule changes related to overtime exemptions. These changes are designed to substantially decrease the number of employees who are exempt from overtime. Today, the Department of Labor released the final rule changes. Employers are required to be compliant with these changes by December 1, 2016.

Below are the key points to the changes in the law employers should know and address:

Higher Minimum Salary for Overtime Exemptions

In addition to the other requirements for an employee to be exempt from overtime, the minimum salary requirement is increasing. What used to be a minimum of $455 per week will now be $913 per week or $47,476 per year. This doubles the current salary threshold level, but is slightly lower than that proposed in the rule. This is the primary reason many currently exempt employees will lose their exemption.

Automatic Updates to Salary Levels Every 3 Years

In an effort to maintain a salary level that is equal to the 40th percentile of full-time salaried workers in the lowest-wage Census region, the minimum salary to be exempt will be increased every three years. This is better than what the DOL originally proposed which was annual increases. The first of these updates will go into effect on January 1, 2020.

Duties Test Unchanged

Though the DOL discussed changing the other specific requirements associated with exemptions from overtime, it decided not to make any changes to those requirements.

Change to Highly Compensated Employee Exemption

One of the exemptions from overtime relates to highly compensated employees. The threshold for this exemption was set at $100,000 per year. The new threshold is set at the 90th percentile of full-time salaried workers nationally, $134,004 per year.

If you have questions or concerns about complying with the new law, Gray Reed’s employment team will be glad to audit your present practices and ensure you are compliant before the December 1, 2016 deadline.

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Who, What, Why . . .

Who does it apply to: Virtually all employers with employees of the opposite sex are subject to the Equal Pay Act (EPA).

What is the rule: Employers cannot pay one sex higher wages than the other for jobs that require equal work based on skill, effort, and responsibility that are performed under the same working conditions unless there is a legitimate exception to justify the difference.

What counts as “wages”: Almost anything you offer as an incentive to an employee is counted under the EPA. It includes pay, bonuses, expense accounts, allowances, lodging, use of a company car, etc. It also includes fringe benefits such as insurance, retirement benefits, leave, vacation or PTO, holidays, and regular days off.

What goes into equal work: Under the EPA, job titles don’t make much difference. The EPA looks across descriptions to make sure like work goes with like pay. To answer the question you set aside the common core duties between the jobs in question and focus on the differences in the following:

Skill: Consider the experience, training, education, and ability required to do the job (not of the person doing it).

Effort: Consider the level of physical and mental exertion required to do the job including factors that create or alleviate stress in performance of the work.

Responsibility: Consider the degree of accountability, creativity, supervisory responsibility, and individual judgment that go into performing the job.

Working conditions: Consider the surroundings and hazards of the position. Is it dangerous or distasteful? Is it unpleasantly hot or cold?

If these characteristics are the same or very similar, the jobs will be considered the same under the EPA and any differences specifically between the sexes will create liability – unless an exception applies.

Are there exceptions: The following exceptions may allow disparity over wages between the sexes:

Seniority: A male employee hired five years ago may make more than a female employee hired five minutes ago so long as the seniority system is formalized and has been followed closely in the past.

Merit: A female employee who has performed admirably in an orderly and systematically applied system may make more than a male counterpart for the same job. Merit systems should be formalized such that they are in writing or all of the employees are clear on the policy.

Quantity/Quality pay systems: Male and female employees paid based on the quantity of items they produce or the quality of the work they produce may be paid differently so long as there are no other extraneous discriminatory factors affecting their pay.

Factors “other than sex”: The black hole of distinctions. It could be anything, but it better be well thought out and documented. Examples that have been accepted in this category are experience, training provided without discrimination, financial crisis, differences in educational background of the employees, and actual economic benefit to the employer (one employee produces higher profits in the same job).

Common Situations:

Market force theory: General Electronics has discovered that women will historically and statistically work for less than men and rarely attempt to bargain a better wage at hiring. Upon suit by an employee, the company raises this as a defense. They pay women less because they are willing to work for less. Will this defense hold up? No, but it has been tried in several variations many times.

Red circle rates: Sarah has been with Bayou Bakery for 35 years and just can’t knead the dough like she used to. Without reducing her pay, Bayou moves Sarah to an inventory clerk position. Several males in the inventory clerk position file an equal pay claim because Sarah makes so much more. Will Bayou be sacked? No. Courts have found this to be an acceptable reason “other than sex” to have a different wage. And remember, the EPA goes against both sexes. Men can make claims, too.

Extra duties: John has the extra responsibility of turning on the lights and unlocking the doors each day at Steam Clean America. Amy, Mary, and Jane have the same job as John at Steam, without the extra task regarding lights and locks. John is paid more than the ladies and they file a claim. Will John’s extra duties justify his higher wage? Probably not. While extra duties can be a justification “other than sex” to pay more, they have to be more than just turning on the lights. Of course, if the difference in pay is very small, a court may consider and accept the difference. The size of the difference in pay between the sexes is a consideration in determining equal pay claims.

Successor liability: During the process of finding a replacement for his office manager, Suzy, Dr. Jose Cuervo discovers Stan. Stan has almost exactly the same qualifications Suzy did for the position, but Dr. Cuervo retains Stan for 10% more in salary. Suzy learns this from a close friend still working for Dr. Cuervo and makes a claim. Will she be successful? Probably. A former employee can reach in and get the difference in pay plus penalties going back up to three years against an employer in circumstances like this. Unless Dr. Cuervo can come up with additional job duties which Stan has agreed to or some other excuse, he will get bottled up on this one.

Not from around here: Joe’s Auto Parts has facilities and stores all over the U.S. All the locations have their own HR representatives that handle hiring, firing, promoting, and wages within nominal guidelines set at corporate. Natalie, who works in the Lubbock facility learns that male employees performing the same job in Harlingen make more for the same job. Joe’s is sunk right? Not likely. The EPA only applies to violations that occur within the same “establishment.” Offices and locations that are geographically and operationally distinct will not be treated together for violations.

What should I do:

Good: Pay all employees in the same position the same wage – including all forms of fringe benefits unless there is some reason to justify the difference.

Better: If you use a seniority or merit system, memorialize it in writing and follow it religiously. Set merit raise promotions for certain projects in motion with a writing to the employees involved. Prepare written notes for all discretionary bonuses awarded by position. Be careful that benefit packages for positions are offered to all persons in those positions. Be wary of changing benefit packages with new employees to avoid risk of accidental EPA claim.

Best: Create job descriptions and use them to identify positions with similar responsibilities and evaluate differences to make sure they justify the price difference in wage, if any. Memorialize in writing all reasons for paying the sexes differently in any position. Follow the exceptions or identify the duties that make the distinction in writing

You’ve set up a your business as an LLC or a Corporation and followed all of the legal requirements to keep the business up under Texas law.  Your lawyer tells you the company will protect you from personal liability to your creditors as long as you follow all the required formalities.

After a few years of really making a go of it and going without a paycheck yourself for months, you suddenly discover that you will not be able to make payroll this week.  The big order you were counting on is not coming in and you have nothing to pay your 5 employees.

You call everyone into a conference room and let them know you are shutting down.  There will be no more company.  There will be no paychecks.  The only solace you have is that what is left of your personal savings is exempt from creditors.  Or is it?

The Federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) requires “employers” to pay their employees at least minimum wage.  The definition of “employer” includes “any person acting directly or indirectly in the interest of an employer in relation to an employee.”  Federal courts use what is known as the “economic reality” test to decide who meets the definition.  Did the person or company:

(1) possess the power to hire and fire the employees,

(2) supervise and control employee work schedules or conditions of employment,

(3) determine the rate and method of payment, and

(4) maintain employment records.

Since there can be more than one “employer” under the FLSA, the owner of the business often also meets this definition and Federal courts have regularly held these business owners personally liable for back wages due employees.

The same is true under Texas law which has the same definition of “employer” but no clear guidance of what is required to meet the standard.  That said, Texas did adopt the FLSA definition of employer and will be likely to follow the “economic reality” test, also.

What is worse, under the Texas labor code, “wages” has a much broader definition than under the FLSA.  It includes vacation pay, holiday pay, sick leave, and severance pay.  This means an owner who meets the definition of “employer” may be personally liable for these additional types of pay.

Be careful employers.  It may be better to stop while you are behind than bet on that next job to cover payroll.  Former employees have up to 180 days from the time the last wages were due to file a complaint with the TWC.

The Evil HR Lady dropped a post recently about an employee who was upset because she just discovered a co-worker was earning more than her with less experience.  Lucas explained in “Dear Abby” fashion why the employee ought to let it go:  The economy is bad.  Lots of people want your job.  Suck it up.  It’s less than $20 a week.  I get it.  She’s right.  If you complain they might let you go, but does the employer have a right to discipline the employees for even talking about their wages? I mean – salaries are sacred secrets – Right?

You ought to know me well enough by now to realize that is not the end of the story.  It is a common myth.  I see it in employee handbooks that I review all of the time.  It is time to wake up.  Elvis has left the building.  Employees can absolutely talk about their wages and complain about them to you and anyone else who will listen.  Stand in the way and you’ll be staring down the barrel of an NLRB (National Labor Relations Board) shotgun.  Yeah, right Kelsheimer, the NLRB is just for unions.  Well, complaining about your wages is considered pre-union activity – even if it amounts to nothing.  With the information all over the internet, employees now know where to complain.  So, now you can’t say I didn’t warn you.