Labor Department Issues Final Rule on Calculating 'Regular Rate' of Pay

 

Lisa Nagele-Piazza, J.D., SHRM-SCP By Lisa Nagele-Piazza, J.D., SHRM-SCP December 12, 2019
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Labor Department Issues Final Rule on Calculating Regular Rate of Pay

Employers now have more clarity and flexibility about which perks they should include in workers' "regular rate" of pay, which is used to calculate overtime premiums under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) announced a final rule that will take effect Jan. 15, 2020.

This is the first time in more than 50 years that the DOL has updated the FLSA definition of the regular rate of pay. Here's how the new law will impact employers.

Reduced Litigation Risk

Currently, the regular rate includes hourly wages and salaries for nonexempt workers, most bonuses, shift differentials, on-call pay and commissions. It excludes health insurance, paid leave, holiday and other discretionary bonuses, and certain gifts.

Many employers weren't sure, however, if certain perks had to be included in the regular rate of pay. So instead of risking costly lawsuits, some employers were choosing not to offer competitive benefits. 

Employers were concerned that, for example, if they offered gym memberships to employees, they would have to add the cost to the regular-rate calculation, explained Kathleen Caminiti, an attorney with Fisher Phillips in Murray Hill, N.J., and New York City. The new rule says that gym membership fees and other similar benefits don't have to be included.

The new rule is intended to reduce the risk of litigation and enable employers to provide benefits without fearing that "no good deed goes unpunished," Caminiti said.

The final rule largely tracks the proposed rule, noted Susan Harthill, an attorney with Morgan Lewis in Washington, D.C. But it includes more clarifying examples and provides additional insight into the DOL's views on specific benefits, she said.

This rule was relatively uncontroversial, said Tammy McCutchen, an attorney with Littler in Washington, D.C. She noted that only a few employee and union groups commented against the rule, and those comments addressed very specific points.

"Employees like these benefits, too," she said.

Clarifications

The rule clarifies that employers may exclude the following perks from the regular-rate calculation:

  • Parking benefits, wellness programs, onsite specialist treatments, gym access and fitness classes, employee discounts on retail goods and services, certain tuition benefits, and adoption assistance.
  • Unused paid leave, including paid sick leave and paid time off.
  • Certain penalties employers must pay under state and local scheduling laws.
  • Business expense reimbursement for items such as cellphone plans, credentialing exam fees, organization membership dues and travel expenses that don't exceed the maximum travel reimbursement under the Federal Travel Regulation system or the optional IRS substantiation amounts for certain travel expenses.
  • Certain sign-on and longevity bonuses.
  • Complimentary office coffee and snacks.
  • Discretionary bonuses (the DOL noted that the label given to a bonus doesn't determine whether it is discretionary).
  • Contributions to benefit plans for accidents, unemployment, legal services and other events that could cause a financial hardship or expense in the future.

"Unlike the upcoming changes to the FLSA white-collar regulations, which will have the force of law, this final rule is predominately interpretative in nature," said Joshua Nadreau, an attorney with Fisher Phillips in Boston. "Nevertheless, you should review these changes carefully to determine whether any of the clarifications are applicable to your workforce."

Employers who follow the rule can show that they made a good-faith effort to comply with the FLSA.

Paying Overtime Premiums

Under the FLSA, nonexempt employees generally must be paid 1.5 times their regular rate of pay for all hours worked beyond 40 in a week. But the regular rate includes more than just an employee's base hourly wage. Employers must consider "all remuneration for employment paid to, or on behalf of, the employee," except for specific categories that are excluded from the calculation, such as:

  • Discretionary bonuses.
  • Payments made when no work is performed, such as vacation or holiday pay.
  • Gifts.
  • Irrevocable benefits payments.
  • Payments for traveling expenses.
  • Premium payments for work performed outside an employee's regular work hours.
  • Extra compensation paid according to a private agreement or collective bargaining.
  • Income derived from grants or options.

The final rule updated and modernized the items that can be excluded from the calculation, Caminiti said. For example, the prior regulation referenced only holiday and vacation time, whereas the new rule recognizes that many employers lump together paid time off. The rule clarifies that all paid time off will be treated consistently as to whether it should be included in the regular rate.

The DOL eliminated some restrictions on "call-back" and similar payments but maintained that they can't be excluded from an employee's regular rate if they are prearranged. 

The rule also addresses meal breaks, scheduling penalties, massage therapy and wellness programs.

"Some of these benefits didn't exist even a decade ago," McCutchen noted.  

Harthill observed that the line between discretionary and nondiscretionary bonuses has created uncertainty and litigation. So the final rule's text and preamble give more examples and explanations about certain bonuses in response to commenters' requests. For example, the final rule provides more clarity about sign-on and longevity bonuses, but the DOL declined to specifically address other types of bonuses commenters asked about. 

Action Items

"Now is the time for a regular-rate audit," McCutchen said. Compensation specialists should gather a list of all the earnings codes they're currently using for nonexempt employees, note each one they are including in the regular rate and compare that with the new rule to see if changes need to be made.

Most employers presently are not including paid sick time, tuition reimbursement and other perks in the regular-rate calculation, McCutchen noted, and DOL has confirmed the practice.

Now is also a good time for employers to decide if they want to start providing certain perks that are popular with employees, she said.

Harthill noted that it is important for employers to check whether the relevant state law tracks or departs from the federal law, because state laws might have stricter rules about overtime calculations. 

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