Seyfarth Synopsis: A recent decision by the Southern District of New York clarifies common questions arising from the use of the fixed salary for a fluctuating workweek method of compensation (the “FWW”): (1) Do isolated pay deductions undermine the fixed salary requirement; (2) Must the employee’s hours fluctuate above and below 40 hours; and (3) Do employees have to subjectively understand the overtime pay calculations for there to be a mutual understanding that the fixed salary was intended to cover all hours worked at straight time? Spoiler Alert: This court answered no to each of these questions.

A Quick FWW Primer

The FWW method is one of two approved methods of calculating a salaried employee’s “regular rate” for overtime pay and may be used where a nonexempt salaried employee’s hours vary from week to week. The weekly salary covers all hours worked at straight time. When the hours fluctuate above 40 in a given week, the employee is then due an addition half-time compensation for the overtime hours. Like the hours worked, the overtime rate fluctuates from week to week and is the quotient of the weekly salary divided by the week’s hours worked. So, as the number of hours worked goes up, the regular rate goes down. If this doesn’t take you back to fourth grade math class, this example should:

Assume Donna’s Weekly Salary is $1,000 and her hours vary week to week.

Hours Worked Salary Paid Regular Rate for OT Overtime Pay Due
Week 1 50 $1,000 $20 ($1,000/50 hours) $100 [($20 x .5) x 10 hours)]
Week 2 40 $1,000 $25 ($1,000/40 hours) $0
Week 3 55 $1,000 $18.18 ($1,000/55 hours) $136.34 [($18.18 x .5) x 15 hours)]
Week 4 35 $1,000 $38.57 ($1,000/35 hours) $0

In order to use the FWW method, the regulations require that (1) the employee’s hours fluctuate from week to week; (2) the employee receives a fixed weekly salary regardless of the number of hours worked; (3) the fixed salary pays the employee at least minimum wage for all hours worked; and (4) the employer and employee have a clear mutual understanding that the employer will pay the employee a fixed salary regardless of the number of hours worked. If each of these factors is satisfied, the employer then need only pay the employee for overtime hours at a rate of 50% the regular rate for that week.

The Case

In Thomas v. Bed Bath and Beyond, Inc., several managers challenged the company’s implementation of the FWW method of pay, arguing that their weekly salaries were docked for absences (and thus were not “fixed”), their work hours did not fluctuate above and below 40 hours, and that there was not a “clear and mutual understanding” that the fixed weekly salary was intended to compensate the managers for all of their hours worked in a week. On each of these points, a federal district court sided with Bed Bath and Beyond, Inc’s (“BBB”).

First, the plaintiffs challenged whether they received a “fixed weekly salary” because the record contained a handful of occasions where a plaintiff’s salary was docked for absences. While the court acknowledged that the FWW method does not allow for salary deductions for time off, it ultimately took a practical approach that did not penalize BBB for isolated (and later rectified) instances of payroll errors. The court also held that the company’s negotiated agreement with one plaintiff that she could take pre-planned vacation unpaid before she accrued paid time off did not undermine the FWW method because it did not call into question BBB’s intention to pay the employee on a fixed salary basis. Rather, it was an accommodation made during the hiring process for the benefit of the employee. This negotiated agreement before the employee took the job, the court explained, should not forever after preclude BBB from using the FWW method of pay. The real takeaway for employers here is that one-off incidents of payroll errors will not invalidate an employer’s use of the FWW. Employers, however, should promptly rectify improper deductions when they are discovered.

Second, plaintiffs argued their hours did not actually fluctuate week to week within the meaning of the FWW regulations because their hours never dropped below forty hours per week. In relying on the text of the regulation, the Court held the FWW requires only that an employee’s hours vary week to week. Fluctuating does not mean the hours must go above and below forty hours. This interpretation opens the FWW method up to workers whose hours are regularly above 40, so long as they fluctuate above the 40-hour threshold.

Third, plaintiffs’ final argument is that they did not have a clear mutual understanding that they would be paid based off the FWW. Plaintiffs advanced this argument even though they did not dispute signing acknowledgement forms that spelled out the method of pay FWW and did not dispute receiving documents informing them of their weekly salary (and sample overtime calculations), annual notices about their pay rate and method, and paystubs showing that their overtime pay was calculated under the FWW.

Despite the many ways in which BBB explained their method of pay to them, Plaintiffs argued that they didn’t really understand it. The court rejected their position, holding that an employee’s subjective lack of understanding of the details of the pay plan is irrelevant; rather, it’s an objective test as to whether employee knows they will be paid on a fixed based salary regardless of the hours worked. Given all of the notices and their own acknowledgements that they received (and understood) all the facts about their method of compensation, the court concluded that there was “no genuine dispute that the [plaintiffs] knew they would be paid a fixed based salary regardless of their hours worked.” From this, employers can take comfort in establishing the clear and mutual understanding by providing notices that the base weekly salary is intended to compensate employees for all hours worked in a week. A particular employee’s later-claimed lack of understanding should not undermine the FWW if the communications and acknowledgments clearly laid out the facts establishing the FWW method of pay.

The FWW contains several traps for the unwary (and some state overtime laws do not permit its use), but at least here a court took a common-sense approach in assessing whether an employer fell into any of those traps.