When Lump-Sum Payments to Employees are Earnings for Garnishment Purposes

Welcome to Part 3 of our series on the Department of Labor’s three new opinion letters. We previously looked at the opinion letters on FMLA intermittent breaks and travel time compensation. If you missed those posts, you can catch up here (FMLA breaks) and here (travel time).

Next up is the wage garnishment letter, which analyzes when a lump-sum payment to an employee constitutes “earnings” subject to garnishment under Title III of the Consumer Credit Protection Act (CCPA). As background, the CCPA limits the amount of earnings that may be garnished pursuant to court orders, such as for child support. Those limits are 50% of an employee’s disposable earnings (i.e., earnings after applicable withholdings) if the employee is supporting another spouse or child, or up to 60% of disposable earnings if the worker is not. (Garnishments may be subject to additional limits under applicable state law.)

The CCPA recognizes “earnings” as any “compensation paid or payable for personal services, whether denominated as wages, salary, commission, bonus, or otherwise, and includes periodic payments pursuant to a pension or retirement program.” As the DOL has previously noted, earnings under the CCPA include lump-sum payments made in exchange for the employee’s services. This new opinion letter addresses three categories of lump-sum payments: earnings, partial earnings, and not earnings.

Earnings Subject to Garnishment

Most lump-sum payments to employees are earnings and thus, as subject to garnishment. Though the CCPA specifically identifies commissions and bonuses as earnings, the letter emphasizes that bonuses in particular come in many forms: signing bonus, referral bonus, relocation incentive, attendance award, etc. Regardless of its name, all of these are still bonuses subject to garnishment. Similarly, retroactive merit increases, holiday pay, or termination pay are all tied to an employee’s work and thus are earnings and garnishable.

Partial Earning Maybe Subject to Garnishment

Some lump-sum payments are partially earnings, such as workers’ compensation and lawsuit settlements. In the workers’ compensation context, for example, an employee may receive payments to replace lost wages as well as medical expenses. The wage substitute payments are earnings (subject to a garnishment order), and the medical expenses are not. Similarly, for a lawsuit settlement, if an employee receives some portion for lost wages and another portion for compensatory damages, any payment for wages counts as an earning (garnishable), but compensatory or punitive damages would not.

Not Earnings Not Subject to Garnishment

Lastly, the letter recognizes only one instance in which a lump-sum payment is categorically not an earning: the buyback of company shares from the employee.

As always, ask your lawyer if you have questions about what constitutes earnings. Questions about lump-sum payments also appear frequently in the wage and hour context—if a non-exempt employee receives a non-discretionary bonus, that amount should be factored into his or her hourly rate for overtime calculations.