Employment Law Questions? Ask an Employment Lawyer.
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While any employee can technically be paid on a "salary basis," only those employees with positions that fall within a statutory EXEMPTION from overtime can be paid the same flat salary without regard to the number of hours they work. If a "non-exempt" employee is paid a salary, any hours worked in excess of 40 in a workweek must still be paid as overtime based on the employee's "regular hourly rate" (their weekly salary divided by 40). This is true even if in other weeks the employee works less than a standard 40 hour week. There is no "averaging out" when it comes to overtime--each workweek is looked at by itself.Overtime exemptions are few and far between. There is one for "managerial" employees who spend the majority of their time exercising managerial discretion over other employees. There is also an exemption for certain "administrative" employees who are primarily responsible for overseeing the general operations of a business and who exercise discretion in such role. However, there is no exemption for laborers or for seasonal employees.
In the future, you can offer a loan or an advance during the slow season to help offset the employees' lack of hours, but unfortunately you cannot do as you did and pay a flat salary to non-exempt employees, then not pay them overtime. Don't get me wrong, from a practical standpoint I completely understand why you did it and it is not inherently unfair--you were trying to do a favor for your workers. But unfortunately good intentions are not a defense to violating overtime law, and so the employee who is claiming overtime does have a legitimate basis for doing so.
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