Although we’ve noticed that the U.S. Supreme Court may be taking a more practical approach to interpreting the sometimes-impractical Fair Labor Standards Act, a recent Sixth Circuit decision reminds us that FLSA exemptions are still strictly interpreted by the courts. In Bacon v. Eaton Corp., a group of “front line” supervisors sued their employer under the FLSA. They argued they were misclassified as exempt employees, and as a result of that misclassification, they were entitled to overtime for any workweeks in which they worked more than forty hours. The employer, understandably, argued these employees were properly exempt under the executive exemption—after all, they were supervisors.
However, the executive exemption requires real supervisory authority. The employees’ primary duty must be management, they must customarily and regularly direct the work of two or more full-time equivalents, and they must possess authority to hire, fire, and effect other changes in employment status. This last requirement can also be met if management gives “particular weight” to the supervisors’ recommendations regarding these types of personnel actions.
The supervisors in Bacon could not hire or terminate employees on their own, so their influence over personnel decisions was the issue. The plaintiffs argued that influence did not exist—the company regularly disregarded or rejected their recommendations regarding employees they supervised, they were never trained in hiring or interviewing employees, and their job descriptions did not include decision-making authority regarding personnel. Ultimately, the Sixth Circuit found this was enough for a jury to decide whether the supervisors’ influence was sufficient to meet the FLSA’s exemption requirements.
Bacon is a useful reminder that strict interpretations of FLSA exemptions continue to rule the day. Very few workplaces provide “front line” supervisors independent authority to hire, terminate, or discipline employees, but many of those workplaces classify those supervisors as exempt under the executive exemption. When that independent authority doesn’t exist, employers should consistently involve those supervisors in personnel decisions, try to consistently follow their recommendations, ensure job descriptions accurately including all supervisory authority, and provide appropriate training on personnel-related issues, such as company policies, leave management, and legal obligations with respect to employees.