Hospitality Industry Will Have to Weigh Options in Wake of Overtime Rule

By Allen Smith, J.D. Jun 2, 2016
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The hospitality industry will be hit hard by the Department of Labor’s updates to the overtime rule implementing the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), experts say. With high overhead costs and a low profit margin, hotels and restaurants typically don’t have enough money in reserve to give employees big raises to preserve their exempt status or to pay many hours of overtime if employees are eligible.

As a result, hospitality employers will need to explore alternative compensation models, schedules and staffing options to try to mitigate costs, according to Ryan Glasgow, an attorney with Hunton & Williams in Richmond, Va.

Some choices will be simple, he noted. For employees with relatively high salaries who work long hours, the logical choice is to increase their salaries, as the minimum increase in salary likely will be less than the employer would have to pay in substantial overtime hours. As for employees with low salaries who don’t work much overtime, it makes sense to convert them to nonexempt and pay overtime for the few overtime hours they might work.

“For all other employees, the decision will be much more difficult and will require a lot of strategic planning and analysis,” Glasgow said. “For example, in certain circumstances, it may be feasible for the employer to combine two exempt positions into one position so that the cost of increasing the salary for the remaining one employee is offset by the cost-savings from the elimination of the other employee’s position.”
He added that it may be better for the employer to convert a position to nonexempt and hire more employees to perform the work so that none of the employees work overtime. “Similarly, employers should evaluate each impacted position to determine whether there are unnecessary and/or inefficient tasks that can be eliminated or given to another employee so that the position requires fewer hours of work, thus lowering the impact of paying overtime,” he noted.

Domino Effect

Be aware of the potential domino effect when an employee’s salary is increased above the new salary level. The employee and the employee’s supervisor may suddenly be making similar salaries. Supervisors may ask for an increase as well, leading to salary increases up the organizational chart, Glasgow said.

Bonus and commission plans will have to be re-evaluated since there may be overtime pay consequences if employees who have been converted to nonexempt are paid bonuses or commissions, noted Robert Boonin, an attorney with Dykema in Detroit and Ann Arbor, Mich., and immediate past chair of the Wage and Hour Defense Institute, a network of wage and hour lawyers.

Rule’s Potential Winners

Salaried workers earning less than $913 a week or $47,476 annually and who regularly work more than 40 hours per week stand to gain from the overtime rule, said Wendy Stryker, an attorney with Frankfurt Kurnit Klein & Selz in New York City. These workers will have their salaries raised above the new threshold, be paid overtime or have their hours reduced to a 40-hour workweek, she said. These employees include entry and midlevel professionals, such as chefs, sommeliers, and hotel or restaurant managers and assistant managers, she added.

The hospitality industry has a lot of employees earning in this range, according to Stryker. She noted that the average U.S. wage for chefs, head cooks and pastry chefs is $45,920. For bakers, the average U.S. wage is lower, at $26,270, Stryker noted.

While workers may benefit from the overtime rule, Michael Layman, vice president, regulatory affairs for the International Franchise Association in Washington, D.C., said the overtime rule will hit the hospitality industry particularly hard. Its employers “disproportionately face unpredictable season- or weather-dependent schedules and variable labor demands, which makes tracking hours and managing overtime costs a significant challenge,” he said.

“Given the need for onsite guest services, employers in the hospitality industry may have less flexibility than other employers to automate or offshore operations,” said Nancy Vary, director of the compliance consulting center at Xerox HR Services in New York City.

However, Carolyn Richmond, an attorney with Fox Rothschild in New York City, said, “I think we will see the live reservationist all but disappear as reliance on [online booking apps] OpenTable, Resy and the others grows.” She added, “Owners are looking at more and more automation—programs that monitor and control labor costs and even how to replace certain employees.”

Other Significantly Affected Industries

Hospitality isn’t the only industry to feel the brunt of the new overtime rule.

“The construction and retail industries will be impacted significantly because, like the hospitality industry, they have unusually high concentrations of low-salaried managers,” Glasgow said. He also expected large research and educational hospitals to be uniquely impacted because they have many low-salaried professionals.

“Any industry that has traditionally offered low pay to its skilled workers is likely to be hard-hit by the new overtime rules,” Stryker said. “In New York City, this is likely to be the creative industries such as advertising and film/television production, where hours are traditionally long, and the work product cannot necessarily be created on a 40-hour-per-week schedule.”

The point of the rule isn’t to benefit employers, though. “The new overtime rules were created to benefit employees,” Stryker said. “As the president noted when he directed the Department of Labor to update the relevant regulations, the FLSA’s overtime protections “are a linchpin of the middle class, and the failure to keep the salary level requirement for the white-collar exemption up to date has left millions of low-paid salaried workers without this basic protection.”

That said, Richmond noted that “While the Department of Labor hopes and expects these changes will lead to increased wages through overtime, I don’t expect that to be the case in [the hospitality] industry. Payroll has already risen dramatically with minimum wage increases and resulting wage compression, and owners will spend more time looking at controlling overtime.” ​

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