When making exempt/non-exempt employee classifications for purposes of overtime payment, employers commonly struggle with classifying employees who are working at a professional level, yet do not possess a specialized degree in that field. In many situations, these jobs involve long-term employees in technical or engineering areas. While the job may now require a BSE, the employers may consider employees with work experience to have equivalent knowledge and education.
Last week, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals released a decision that should caution employers against making these equivalent to professional overtime classifications. In Young v. Cooper Cameron Corp., the plaintiff was a Product Design Specialist classified as an Professional, exempt from FLSA overtime requirements. In defending the employee's suit for unpaid overtime, the company argued that despite the lack of any formal education beyond a high school diploma, the plaintiff had over 20 years of engineering-type experience, and that his job involved engineer level expertise and responsibility.
The Second Circuit rejected this argument, affirming a verdict for the plaintiff. Despite the plaintiff's experience and expertise, the court found that the employer could not claim the Professional exemption in the absence of the advanced professional degree. The Second Circuit rejected the employer's use of a Department of Labor regulation that allows rare exceptions to the education rule in situations where the employee has equivalent experience in the field. That exception only applies where the degree is normally required for the job. In this case, numerous Product Design Specialists had no college education, yet were classified as exempt.
The Second Circuit also classified the overtime violation as willful, meaning that a third year of back wages and liquidated damages were added to the verdict. Employers cannot be misled by the degree of experience and knowledge tied to a technical job. Absent an advanced professional degree, in almost every case the employee will be considered non-exempt regardless of the salary level or the importance of the job to the organization.