The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) provides several exemptions from overtime requirements for employees whose job duties meet specific tests. Most employers are familiar with the standard “white- collar” exemptions – including the “executive” and “administrative” exemptions – and the job duties and “salary basis” tests required to satisfy those exemptions. 

However, a recent federal case in the Middle District of North Carolina, Campbell v. Kannapolis City Schools Board of Education, demonstrates the potential value of the FLSA’s unique and often-overlooked “computer professionals” exemption.  Indeed, the computer professionals exemption may be helpful to the increasing number of employers with full-time information technology and related computer professionals to support critical electronic networks – even if those employees are paid by the hour.

“Computer Professional” Job Duties

In Campbell, the plaintiff, Jeffrey Campbell, was a local area network (LAN) engineer for the Kannapolis City school district who alleged that he was required to work more than 40 hours a week without being paid overtime. On Sept. 23, 2014, the federal court granted summary judgment to Kannapolis City and dismissed the case, based on the finding that Campbell’s job duties made him an exempt “computer professional” within the meaning of the FLSA.

As with other white-collar exemptions, the FLSA regulations look to a computer employee’s job duties to determine whether he or she qualifies as an exempt “computer professional.” An employee need not have any specific computer degree or certification to qualify for the computer professional exemption, nor does an employee’s job title determine his or her exemption. Instead, an employee’s “primary duty” that is, generally more than half of his or her time – must involve one or more of the following activities to qualify for the computer professional exemption:

  • Application of systems analysis techniques and procedures, including consultations with users, to determine hardware, software, or system functional specifications;
  • Design, development, documentation, analysis, creation, testing, or modification of computer systems or programs, based on user or system design specifications; or
  • Design, documentation, creation, testing, or modification of computer programs related to machine operating systems  

The determination of whether an employee qualifies for the exemption is fact-specific. The U.S. Department of Labor has interpreted these provisions to find that employees engaged in the manufacture and repair of computer equipment, as well as employees whose work is highly dependent on computers but does not involve systems analysis or programming (such as “help desk” employees), generally do not qualify for the computer professional exemption.

In the Campbell case, the court analyzed the job duties set forth in the LAN engineer job description, Campbell’s goal-based performance reviews, and Campbell’s testimony regarding his actual job duties before concluding that he qualified for the exemption. More specifically, Campbell was responsible for designing, installing, maintaining, and operating LANs for Kannapolis City schools and developing the technology systems necessary to achieve those functions.

The court contrasted his duties and salary with those of lower-skilled, lesser-paid “help desk” employees, who spend the majority of their time addressing the operation of individual users’ desktops. Because Campbell’s duties required higher-level analysis and discretion, and impacted the school district’s computer functionality as a whole, the court determined that Campbell qualified for the exemption.

Exempt Computer Professionals May Be Paid Hourly or Salary

The case focused on Campbell’s job duties and not whether he was paid hourly or on a “salary basis.” However, one key distinction of the computer professional exemption is that “computer professionals” need not be on salary to qualify for the overtime exemption.

The other white-collar exemptions generally require employers to pay a qualified employee on a “salary basis,” meaning that the employee earns a predetermined amount of compensation (at least $455 per week, or $23,660 per year) that is not subject to reduction based on variations in the quantity or quality of work performed.  However, the FLSA waives the salary basis test (i.e., permits payment by the hour) for any computer professional paid a minimum hourly rate of $27.63.

Computer professionals who meet the job duties test and earn at least $27.63 per hour may be paid hourly and will not be entitled to the time and one-half overtime premium for hours worked over 40 in a workweek.  Employees who earn less than $27.63 per hour can still qualify for the computer professional exemption, but they must be paid on a “salary basis.”

Takeaways for Employers

As sophisticated computer systems become increasingly necessary for most employers’ daily operations, the potential use of the FLSA’s often-overlooked “computer professional” exemption for IT professionals continues to expand. But the Campbell case highlights the distinction between high-level computer professionals responsible for the development and maintenance of their employer’s computer networks, who qualify for the “computer professional” exemption, and lower-level “help desk” employees, who often do not.

Employers should carefully consider the job duties of each member of their IT staffs to determine whether individual team members may qualify for this overtime exemption. When in doubt, consult your employment attorney for help in analyzing whether specific positions will qualify.