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Ensure FLSA exemption is for actual job—Not theoretical one

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in Human Resources

When it comes to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), employers can’t afford to make classification mistakes. Only exempt employees lose out on overtime when they work more than 40 hours per week. The U.S. Department of Labor—and courts—strictly interpret what constitutes exempt work and what does not.

Take, for example, the professional exemption. You might assume that if the job description requires a specific college degree, the job fits in the exempt professional category. You could be wrong. It all depends on the actual job duties as performed by employees.

In the following case, the job requirement was a science degree, but at least one manager admitted that a well-trained high school senior could do most of the job.

Recent case: Steve Abrahamson sued his former employer for overtime he alleged he should have been paid. Abrahamson worked as a microbiologist in the microbiology unit of his company, a drug manufacturer. The job was classified as exempt professional.

A former supervisor testified that a college degree in the sciences was a job requirement. However, when he was pushed, he had to admit that with proper training, most high school seniors could do 90% of the job.

That was enough for the court to question the professional exemption. It said it was an open question whether the job actually required the jobholder to use advanced knowledge acquired by the prolonged study of specialized intellectual instruction—or whether a general academic program was sufficient. The court sent the case on to trial. (Abrahamson v. Sandoz, No. 06-CV-00636, DC CO, 2008)

Final note: Remember that an FLSA mistake can be costly. Employers may owe up to three years of back pay plus penalties. Also keep in mind that FLSA lawsuits are popular among the class-action legal crowd. A class action can magnify even a small claim into one worth several million dollars.

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