As schools seek to adjust to the new Department of Labor overtime exemption rules and increased salary standards, nearly every institution has classification and overtime-calculation questions about athletic coaches and athletic trainer positions. The NCAA (in conjunction with CUPA-HR) has now issued a helpful paper addressing exemption analysis and practical considerations applicable to these roles that can be found here. The analysis identifies several options for potentially classifying coaches and athletic trainers as exempt from overtime, which hinge fundamentally on defining each individual’s “primary duty.” That can be tricky, particularly for assistant coaches, given that (1) federal law defines primary duties as the “most important” (which may or may not be those that consume the most time) and (2) coaches are commonly assigned a wide variety of tasks and roles, depending on particular team needs, size of institution, or head coach preferences. Definitive decisions about classification will thus continue to require case-by-case analysis of each coach’s particular situation, but the NCAA’s paper provides several helpful concepts to help frame such decisions.

Highlights of the exemption analysis include:

  • For coaches, two exemptions remain viable even if salaries are set below the new $47,676 threshold:
    • The teaching exemption will likely be the most commonly applicable option and does not require satisfaction of any salary threshold, as long as the coach’s most important responsibilities focus on student-athlete instruction (on topics such as athletic performance, physical health, team concepts, and safety) and/or designing instructional programs for individual student-athletes or for the team as a whole.
    • Coaches may also qualify for the academic administrator exemption if their primary duty consists of academic advising to players or responsibility for administration of an academic department, as long as they also receive a salary equal to the minimum salary for teachers at their particular institution.
  • Other exemptions may apply to coaches or athletic trainers with managerial/supervisory responsibility and discretion to make meaningful decisions independently, but only for positions paid salaries above the new threshold. Furthermore, the NCAA paper highlights the potential for “combined duties” to satisfy multiple exemptions and thus avoid overtime payments; but only if salaries satisfy the new threshold.
  • Athletic trainers are particularly likely to qualify as exempt under the “learned professional” exemption, as long as they have completed four academic years of pre-professional study and have obtained certifications commonly required of their positions. This exemption requires a salary at least equal to the new DOL threshold.

With respect to coaches or athletic trainers who are or become classified as non-exempt, the NCAA paper identifies several important aspects of seeking to manage overtime payments, including:

  • Accurate time records are essential and recommended on a weekly basis in any form that is certified by both the employee and manager. (See our earlier post on this subject.)
  • Travel time compensation requirements are complex and involve careful attention to commuting time (not compensable), work-hour travel (compensable), and out-of-town travel time on a single day (compensable) or for an overnight trip (mixed result).
  • Work time related to digital communication or remote system access for texts, calls, e-mails, or other communication outside normal hours can also create substantial overtime obligations for coaches who routinely communicate at odd hours.

Athletic department and human resources staff must take the time to carefully understand, diligently manage, and clearly communicate expectations and limitations in these areas for any coaches and athletic trainers who are deemed eligible for overtime.