There has been a lack of clarity in California wage and hour law on how compensation must be structured to meet the “salary basis test,” particularly where an exempt employee is paid based on hours worked. However, in Negri v. Koning & Associates, the California Court of Appeal addressed this very issue and concluded that a compensation scheme based solely upon the number of hours worked, with no guaranteed minimum, is not considered a “salary” for the purpose of state overtime laws. 

Under California law, an employee exempt from overtime laws must regularly receive “a monthly salary of no less than two (2) times the state minimum wage for full time employment” that cannot be reduced except in enumerated exceptions. Most of the litigation over the so-called salary basis test has addressed when deductions may be made from the exempt employee’s compensation without undermining the exemption. 

In Koning & Associates, the plaintiff/employee was paid an hourly wage for 40 hours per week so that, in effect, he received an unvarying minimum amount of pay. Nevertheless, the Court found that, based on the employer’s admission that it never paid the employee a “guaranteed salary,” the employee did not meet the administrative exemption. 

Although the Court acknowledged based on precedent that the employer may calculate a salary based upon hours worked, it emphasized that this must be a “predetermined amount” that is not subject to reduction because of variations in the quality or quantity of work performed. 

The Court recognized that an employee may otherwise be compensated beyond the predetermined amount for extra work without losing the exemption. The key fact that the Court relied upon in concluding that the salary basis test was not met was the employer’s concession that it never paid a “guaranteed salary.”   

This case highlights the importance of California employers properly characterizing compensation paid to exempt employees to reflect that it is a predetermined amount, no matter how the “salary” is ultimately calculated.