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Professional exemption limited when applied to medical staff

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Don't assume that medical employees with advanced training and licenses meet the "learned profession" exemption, which allows employers to pay lawyers and doctors by the hour and still not pay them overtime. That blanket exemption applies only to lawyers who practice law and doctors who practice medicine, not other related professionals.

Many employers in the medical field assume that the exemption includes highly trained and licensed physician's assistants and nurse practitioners, so they pay those employees on an hourly basis. But the first federal appeals court to consider the issue has now ruled that such classifications aren't legal.

Recent case: Nurse practitioners and physician's assistants in five states sued their employer, EmCare, after the company refused to pay overtime. EmCare said the employees were hourly medical professionals exempt from overtime.

The U.S. Labor Department sided with the employees, saying nascent professionals such as nurse practitioners and physician's assistants still had to be paid on a salary basis to be deemed exempt under FLSA rules. A court agreed, saying those professions are still in need of protection against "the evil of overwork as well as underpay." (Belt, et al., v. EmCare, No 05-40370, 5th Cir., 2006)

Advice: The simple fix is to pay nurse practitioners, physician's assistants and all other quasi-professionals in the medical field who otherwise fit the "professional" exemption on a salary basis.

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