It is that time of the year when most companies start thinking about handing out year end or Christmas bonuses to their employees. For exempt workers, such payments are not a concern. For non-exempt workers, however, bonus payments raise the prospect of adding to the employee's regular rate, which could result in additional overtime liability. For example, if an employee works overtime in the week he receives a bonus check of $400.00, the Department of Labor may require the bonus to be included in the "regular rate" upon which the time and one half overtime calculation is based (i.e. add $10 per hour to regular rate).

Companies can easily avoid the overtime problem by carefully crafting their bonus policies to fit within the Department of Labor's exclusion for "discretionary payments" (29 CFR 778.211). The relevant regulation provides:

The employer must retain discretion both as to the fact of payment and as to the amount until a time quite close to the end of the period for which the bonus is paid. The sum, if any, to be paid as a bonus is determined by the employer without prior promise or agreement. The employee has no contract right, express or implied, to any amount. If the employer promises in advance to pay a bonus, he has abandoned his discretion with regard to it. Thus, if an employer announces to his employees in January that he intends to pay them a bonus in June, he has hereby abandoned his discretion regarding the fact of payment by promising a bonus to his employees.

For employers, this means it is critical that bonus policies be scrutinized to ensure there are no promises or guaranties of payment, and that the appropriate discretion language is included. If not, your Company could be on the hook for a much larger Christmas bonus this year than you anticipated.