Pennsylvania Court Decision Highlights the “Do’s and Don’ts” of Paying Non-Exempt Employees on a Salary Basis

by McNees Wallace & Nurick LLC
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Under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), employers are permitted to pay non-exempt employees a fixed salary to cover straight-time earnings for all hours worked in a week, provided several conditions are met: a) the employee’s hours must fluctuate week to week; b) the employee must be paid the fixed salary in weeks where employee works less than 40 hours; c) there must be a clear understanding that the salary is intended as straight-time compensation for all hours worked; d) the employee’s “regular rate” of pay (calculated by dividing the salary amount by the total weekly hours worked) must be at least the federal minimum wage; and e) for each hour worked in excess of 40 in a week, the employee must be paid an overtime premium of at least ½ the employee’s regular rate for that week.  This pay plan, commonly referred to as the “fluctuating work week” method (“FWW”), was long thought to be lawful in Pennsylvania.  However, in two federal court decisions issued in 2012 and 2014, FWW pay plans were found to violate the Pennsylvania Minimum Wage Act (“PMWA”).  Put another way, a pay practice that is permitted under federal FLSA regulations was found to violate Pennsylvania’s state law governing wages and overtime.

The earlier court decisions striking down FWW pay plans were both authored by federal judges who were interpreting state law.  Some employers have held out hope that the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania might disagree with their interpretation of the PMWA and resurrect FWW pay plans in Pennsylvania.  This issue has not yet reached Pennsylvania’s highest state court.  However, in Chevalier v. General Nutrition Centers, Inc. the Superior Court of Pennsylvania (an intermediate appellate court) considered the status of FWW plans under the PMWA.

In Chevalier, GNC’s store managers and assistant managers were treated as “salaried non-exempt” employees.  That is, they were paid a fixed salary regardless of how many hours they worked.  GNC also paid its managers an overtime premium consistent with the FWW method; i.e., a “regular rate” was calculated for each week (salary divided by total hours worked) and managers were paid ½ of the regular rate as a premium for each overtime hour worked.

Citing the prior federal court decisions referenced above, the plaintiffs argued that GNC’s FWW plan violated the PMWA.  From the plaintiff’s perspective, GNC was required to calculate each manager’s regular rate by dividing his or her weekly salary by 40 hours – and then pay 1 ½ times this rate for each hour worked in excess of 40.

Interestingly, the Superior Court did not side entirely with either party.  The Court found that GNC properly calculated each manager’s regular rate by dividing his or her weekly salary by the total number of hours worked by the manager in the week (and not by 40, as argued by the plaintiffs).  This holding results in a lower regular rate in weeks during which overtime is worked.

However, upon reviewing Section 231.43(b) of PMWA regulations, the Court agreed with the plaintiffs that overtime hours must be paid at a rate of 1 ½ times the regular rate for all hours worked in excess of 40 – or three times more than the ½ time premium that was being paid by GNC to its salaried non-exempt managers.  By way of example, if a non-exempt manager is paid a fixed salary of $1,000 each week, regardless of hours worked – then his or her “regular rate” is $20/hour in a week during which the manager works 50 hours.  Applying the Superior Court’s reasoning, this manager must then be paid $30/hour (1 ½ X $20) for each of the 10 overtime hours worked that week.

Notably, while the Chevalier case was pending, the Superior Court invited the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry (“L&I”) to state its position as to whether the FWW method of calculating overtime pay is permitted under PMWA.  L&I declined to do so, explaining that, by taking a formal position on the issue, the Department would arguably be taking regulatory action without following the required regulatory review process.

In sum, the Chevalier decision makes it clear that employers may realize some wage savings by treating certain employees as “salaried non-exempt.”  However, the PMWA applies a stricter standard for calculating overtime pay than is permitted under FLSA regulations for FWW pay programs.   While Pennsylvania employers may calculate a salaried non-exempt employee’s “regular rate” in the same manner as they would under an FWW, the PMWA requires payment of 1 ½ times that rate for each overtime hour – and not merely payment of a ½ time premium.

Until the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania says otherwise (or the PMWA is amended), employers who employ salaried non-exempt employees in Pennsylvania should be careful to ensure that their overtime pay practices are consistent with the Chevalier decision.  If you have any questions regarding the Chevalier case or any other wage and hour compliance issue, please contact any member of our Labor and Employment Practice Group.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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