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Department of Labor Proposes Increase to Wage Threshold: What it Means for Small Business Owners

by Tim AustinApril 8, 2019 8:00 AM

The Department of Labor announced a proposal in early March to change the salary-level threshold for white-collar exemptions. This move comes more than two years after a federal judge blocked another attempt to update the threshold for overtime eligibility, although the details of the proposal differ from the 2016 proposal.

The current salary-level threshold for white-collar exemptions is $23,600 annually, which equates to $455 per week. The DoL’s new proposal seeks to increase the threshold to $35,308 annually ($679 per week) – nearly halfway to the DoL’s 2016 target threshold of $47,476 ($913 per week).

While the new proposal is notably lower than the blocked attempt, it still marks a nearly 50 percent increase from the current wage threshold. As a result, the DoL “estimates that 1.1 million currently exempt employees who earn at least $455 per week but less than the proposed standard salary level of $679 per week would, without some intervening action by their employers, become eligible for overtime.” That’s a notable change that can have a direct impact on your employee’s compensation.

Businessman contemplating options regarding the new salary-level threshold proposal from the Department of Labor. 

Breaking Down the New Overtime Salary-Level Threshold

The quick explanation of the new proposal is that employees who make less than $35,308 annually or $679 per week may be eligible for overtime pay. Overtime applies to any hours worked past 40 in a given week and will be compensated at a rate of one-and-a-half times an employee’s standard rate of pay. 

Not all employees would be eligible for overtime pay, however. The job duties of an employee play a major part in deciding whether someone is eligible. As with the current salary-level threshold, employees must pass three tests to qualify for a white-collar exemption from overtime pay:

  • The salary basis test – Exempt employees must be paid a predetermined and fixed salary that is not subject to reduction because of variations in the quality or quantity of work performed
  • The salary level test – Exempt employees must be paid at least a specified weekly salary of $679 per week
  • The duties test – Exempt employees must primarily perform executive, administrative, or professional duties as defined by DoL regulations (duty definitions can be found on the DoL website)

The new proposal also increases the salary level for “highly compensated employees” (HCE) from $100,000 to $147,414 per year. This group faces what the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM) calls a “relaxed” duties test. As such, these employees are exempt from overtime if their primary duty is office or nonmanual work and routinely “perform at least one of the bona fide exempt duties of an executive, administrative, or professional employees.”

It’s important to note that the term “white-collar exemptions” is used, as the new proposal maintains overtime protections for “blue collar” workers who perform tasks that involve “repetitive operations with their hands, physical skill and energy.” This includes no changes in overtime eligibility for any of the following professions:

  • Police officers
  • Fire fighters
  • Paramedics
  • Nurses
  • Laborers
  • Non-management employees in maintenance, construction, and similar occupations (carpenters, electricians, mechanics, etc.)

Another difference with the new proposal is that there are no plans to make automatic threshold updates in the future. This is a notable departure from the 2016 proposal, in which the threshold would change every three years to match the 40th percentile of earnings of full-time salaried workers in the lowest-wage Census Region. This means that if the proposal were to go into effect, it would only lead to the $35,308 ($679 per week) threshold and not any pre-planned adjustments.

What Can Small Business Owners Do About the New Overtime Proposal?

It’s currently a waiting game to see whether this new DoL proposal will go into effect or not. Like the 2016 proposal, the new salary-level threshold could run into some roadblocks. Despite this, it’s best to plan ahead just in case the proposal becomes reality. 

Your options are largely the same as they were back in 2016, some of which may be more feasible than others for your company. The first is to pay newly-eligible employees overtime pay for applicable hours. Another is to limit employee hours to 40 per week to stop any chance of overtime pay. Each route has drawbacks, as paying overtime will increase your payroll and limiting hours may lead to decreased productivity thanks to change in overall work hours. 

If neither of those ideas sound appealing, there are some other alternatives. One possible way to mitigate the impact of overtime pay is to raise the wage of workers who are close to the salary-level threshold. For example, if an employee regularly worked extra hours makes $34,000 per year, you could increase his pay to $36,000 per year. You’ll need to do the math to see if the change in pay outweighs the potential costs of overtime, but this method can help you control costs while still offering some reward to an employee.

A more cost-effective, but less popular, alternative is to lower the salaries of newly-eligible overtime employees. This will help you account for overtime costs, but employees won’t approve of decreased pay if they’re eligible for overtime.

Protect Your Business Through Preparation

It’s important to take any proposed regulations seriously, especially when you can face a civil monetary penalty of $2,014 for repeated or willful violations of overtime rules occurring after Jan. 24, 2019. There are still plenty of steps the DoL’s new proposal needs to take, but it’s always good to have a plan in place just in case.

Unfortunately, there’s not always the time or means to stay ahead of new regulations or other changes that could impact your business. That’s why small business owners turn to GMS to help them stay compliant with current laws and prepare for future legislation and regulations. Our team of experts and integrated HR system allows us to take on the administrative burden of small business payroll management and other crucial human resources tasks.

Ready to prepare for your business’ future. Contact us today to talk to one of our experts about how we can help.

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