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Exempt vs Non-Exempt Employee

Understanding the difference between exempt and non-exempt employees is crucial for businesses to ensure compliance with labor laws and optimize workforce management. At the Lodi Chamber of Commerce, our comprehensive HR resources provide in-depth guidance on classifying employees correctly to avoid legal pitfalls and enhance operational efficiency. Explore our expert insights and tools designed to help you navigate the complexities of exempt versus non-exempt status, ensuring your business stays informed and compliant.

Please note: Lodi Chamber Business Tools HR Resources are provided by CalChamber's HR California and are intended for the use of Lodi District Chamber of Commerce members only.

Determining Exempt vs Non-Exempt Employees

Because it is highly litigated, understanding the distinction between exempt and nonexempt employees is critical. Generally, exempt employees are your key personnel who possess management and decision-making responsibilities. Because of the complexity of this area of law and the potential for fines and awards of back overtime pay when an employee is misclassified, this website contains an extensive discussion of the subject. It also contains sample worksheets to assist you in determining an employee’s status. Always assume employees are nonexempt unless they clearly meet the salary and job duties tests of an exempt position. If you are not experienced in determining exempt and nonexempt status, or if you are unsure about the status of a particular position, ask competent employment law counsel to review your determination.

An exempt employee is normally an executive, administrative or professional employee. Other exempt employee types include some salespeople and computer professionals. All other employees generally fall under the nonexempt category. All nonexempt employees are covered by the state and federal wage and hour laws. To avoid paying overtime premiums, an employee must be exempt from the overtime requirements of both state and federal law.

You are not required by law to fill out and/or save exemption worksheets to determine if an employee should be classified as exempt or nonexempt. However, the worksheets offer an excellent way to define an employee’s job duties and compare them to the criteria that must be met for an employee to be classified properly as exempt or nonexempt. Misclassification of a nonexempt employee as exempt could result in huge awards of back overtime payments, plus fines and legal expenses.

Use the exemption worksheets to help determine if the position you are filling should be classified as exempt or nonexempt. When determining if an employee’s duties meet the requirements for an exemption, remember that an employee who does not perform exempt duties on a regular basis cannot be classified as exempt for a temporary assignment unless they meet the following criteria:

  • Works the exempt job for at least one month; and
  • Meets the duties and salary tests.

You usually complete the worksheet based on the position’s job description. However, consider asking the employees who fill the position to help you complete the worksheets. These employees can help determine the exact duties performed on a regular basis. They also know the amount of time they actually spend on various tasks, as this may differ greatly from time allocated for those tasks in a written job description. Keep completed exempt analysis worksheets in employees’ personnel files or with other worksheets in a common file. You can use them for reference when hiring for similar positions.

  • You should make the determination as to the appropriate classification at the time of recruitment for the open position, and regularly audit to ensure that the position still meets any claimed exemption.

Making the determination at the time of recruitment is critical if you will be running credit reports in the hiring process. California law generally prohibits the use of a consumer credit report for employment purposes, but there is an exception if the position is an exempt manager. If you want to obtain and use a credit report for a managerial position, you must make sure that the position properly meets the exemption test at the time of recruitment.

You can also use the worksheets periodically to reconsider the status of existing positions if the job content changes or the amount of time spent on exempt versus nonexempt duties changes.

Duties Important. Job Title Irrelevant.

In order for California employees to be exempt, they must generally meet strict job duties tests particular to each exemption.

Job titles alone do not designate an employee as exempt or nonexempt. An employee with an impressive job title may not qualify as an exempt employee if their actual duties do not meet the exemption requirements. An employee who performs routine bookkeeping tasks does not become an exempt employee when given the title “controller” rather than “bookkeeper.” Giving an employee the title of “store manager” does not make them exempt if they open or close the store alone, serve customers, maintain merchandise displays and perform the work of a retail clerk. Calling an employee a “computer systems analyst” or “software engineer” does not make that employee exempt unless the employee meets all the exemption tests. For more information on the exemption tests for computer professionals, see Computer Professional Exemption.

Minimum Salary Requirements for Exempt Employees

Properly classified exempt employees generally must meet a specific minimum salary test. The following information describes some of the more important issues you should consider regarding an exempt employee’s salary.

Under California law, the most common exemptions require employees to earn a minimum monthly salary of no less than two times the state minimum wage for full-time employment, and the salary must be a pre-determined sum.2 This minimum amount may not be prorated for part-time work.3 There are different rules for some employees, such as hourly physicians, computer professionals and salespersons.

However, merely placing an employee on a salary does not exempt that employee from wage and hour laws. A nonexempt employee placed on a “salary” earns overtime just as hourly wage earners do.

  • Beginning January 1, 2024, the minimum wage will be $16 for all employers, regardless of size. Accordingly, the minimum monthly salary for these is $5,546.67 per month ($66,560 per year) for 2024.

To calculate this amount, multiply the applicable state minimum wage by two, then multiply by the number of hours a full-time employee works in one year. Divide the result by 12 months.


  • California minimum wage = $16.00/hour.
  • Number of hours a full-time employee works in a week = 40.
  • Number of weeks in a year = 52.
  • Number of hours a full-time employee works in a year = 40 x 52 = 2,080.
  • Minimum annual salary for a full-time exempt employee beginning January 1, 2024 = $16.00 x 2 = $32 x 2,080 = $66,560.
  • Minimum monthly salary for a full-time exempt employee beginning January 1, 2024 = $66,560 ÷ 12 = $5,546.67.

In California, special minimums for exempt status apply to certain physicians who are paid hourly and to computer professionals. For more information, see “Exemption for Physicians Paid on an Hourly Basis” in Professional Exemption and Computer Professional Exemption.

  • Effective April 1, 2024 and June 1, 2024, the applicable statewide minimum wage will increase for fast food workers and health care workers, respectively. The higher rates in these industries change the exempt salary threshold for covered employees.
  • For fast food workers, you must pay exempt employees two times the applicable fast food worker minimum wage4 ($20 per hour on April 1, 2024), which is equivalent to an annual salary of $83,200 ($6,933.34 per month).
  • For healthcare workers, you must pay either 1.5 times the applicable healthcare worker minimum wage (various rates depending on employer) or two times the general statewide minimum wage, whichever is greater.5

Salary is limited to cash wages. It cannot include payments “in kind,” such as the value of meals and lodging.

Federal Salary Basis Rules

For California employers, the minimum salary test of two times the state minimum wage is currently higher than the federal salary basis test. Currently, the federal salary threshold for white-collar exemptions under the FLSA is $684 per week (equivalent to $35,568 per year) and the annual compensation threshold for employees who are exempt as a "highly compensated employee" is $107,432; however, the DOL proposed a new overtime rule in September 2023 that would raise the federal salary threshold to $1,059 per week, or $55,068 per year and would increase the compensation threshold for "highly compensated employees" to $143,988. At the time of publication, the federal rulemaking was in progress and had not been finalized.

California employers must continue to meet California's higher salary requirements and stricter duties test.

Still, the federal salary basis regulations6 warrant some attention because at times they are relied on by California agencies. The Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE) indicated that although differences do exist between the state and federal exemption standards, the federal regulations can serve as a guide where there is no conflict.7 Also, an increasing number of class-action lawsuits are now filed under the FLSA, alleging exemption violations.

The federal regulations include a safe harbor provision that provides some protection from liability under federal law. A state court could consider the provision if you are sued under state law. Under the safe harbor provision, an employer can avoid total loss of an exemption as a result of making improper deductions from salary if:

  • The employer has a clearly communicated policy that prohibits improper deductions.
  • The employer reimburses any adversely affected employees for losses resulting from deductions.
  • The employer ceases making prohibited deductions when learning that they were made.8

Exempt Employees Receive Pre-Determined Amount

In order to meet the minimum salary test, the exempt employee must receive a pre-determined amount constituting all or part of their compensation for each pay period. The amount cannot be reduced because of variations in the number of hours worked or quality of the work performed. Again, this is the general rule for the executive, administrative and professional exemptions.

  • Employees compensated on an hourly basis generally do not meet the salary test required for exempt employees.9 Exceptions exist for certain computer professionals and physicians paid on an hourly basis. For more information, see Computer Professional Exemption and“Exemption for Physicians Paid on an Hourly Basis” in Professional Exemption.

In Negri v. Koning & Associates, a California court of appeal ruled that an insurance adjuster who was paid hourly and did not receive a pre-determined amount per pay period was not paid on a salary basis and therefore was not exempt.10 A guaranteed minimum must be in place. A compensation scheme based solely on the number of hours worked without a guaranteed minimum is not a “salary” and does not qualify an employee as exempt. In this case, the court ruled that the employee was nonexempt and could proceed with his overtime claim.

Aside from the exceptions provided in this section, the employee must receive their full salary for any week in which the employee performs any work without regard to the number of days or hours worked. As a general rule, you need not pay an exempt employee for any workweek in which they perform no work.

Despite the general rule requiring payment of a set salary, an employer may pay an exempt employee additional compensation on an hourly basis for hours in excess of the standard 40-hour workweek. If the standard workweek in a particular industry is less than 40 hours, the Labor Commissioner allows an hourly rate for all hours beyond the industry standard. In addition, any hourly rate paid to otherwise exempt employees for work in excess of eight hours in any one day will not affect the exempt employee’s status.

Temporary Assignments and Employee Status

If an employee who is on a temporary assignment does not perform exempt duties on a regular basis, they are not exempt unless they work the exempt job and meets the duties and salary tests for at least one calendar month.

Primarily Engages in Exempt Work

Most exemptions explained in this chapter require the employee to be “primarily engaged” in exempt duties. To determine if the employee primarily engages in exempt work, the Labor Commissioner examines all the work that the employee performs during the workweek. The Labor Commissioner considers the amount of time the employee spends on exempt work, as well as your realistic expectations and the realistic requirements of the job. In general, the employee must spend more than 50 percent of their time performing exempt duties.12

Exercise caution if you have managers that supervise employees and, at the same time, perform routine nonexempt tasks, such as stocking shelves or managing the phone lines.

A California court ruled that a manager who performed various nonexempt duties (bagging groceries, cashiering, stocking) while simultaneously supervising staff was not primarily engaged in the performance of exempt work and was entitled to overtime.13

Linda Heyen, an assistant manager at a Safeway, sued the store for unpaid overtime, claiming that Safeway should have classified her as a nonexempt employee because she regularly spent more than 50 percent of her work hours performing nonexempt tasks, such as cashiering, bagging groceries and stocking shelves.

Safeway argued that while these managers help with bagging or stocking shelves, they still actively function in their exempt managerial duties of supervising others, observing how the store is run, considering how to make the store run more efficiently, resolving employee and operational problems, and instructing employees.

The court disagreed with Safeway and upheld an award of overtime to Heyen.

According to the court, when a supervisor is multi-tasking and engaging in the concurrent performance of both exempt and nonexempt duties, the employer should examine the supervisor’s primary reason or purpose for undertaking the task in order to determine if the task is exempt or nonexempt — there are no “hybrid activities.” The employer must determine if more than 50 percent of the time is spent on exempt tasks.

The court provided this guidance, quoting federal regulations: “If a task is performed because it is ‘helpful in supervising the employees or contribute[s] to the smooth functioning of the department for which [the supervisors] are responsible’ ... the work is exempt; if not, it is nonexempt.”

Examples from the decision:

  • Where the replenishing of stocks of merchandise on the sales floor is usually done by a nonexempt employee, the performance of this task by the manager or buyer of the department is nonexempt.
  • A manager’s participation in making sales to customers is nonexempt, unless the sales are made for “supervisory training or demonstration purposes.”

In a recent court case, also involving an assistant manager at Safeway, a jury returned a verdict that the assistant manager was properly classified as exempt, which was upheld by an appellate court.14 Though this case was decided in favor of Safeway, the court reiterated that employers shouldn’t assume that a menial task is exempt simply because it assists an exempt employee in carrying out “managerial” job duties. Nonexempt duties should be considered exempt when they are “directly and closely related” to exempt duties. Categorization of the time depends on the manager’s purpose: If the underlying purpose is managerial (supervisory training or demonstration purposes), the task may be exempt.

Discretion and Independent Judgment

Most exemptions explained in this chapter require the employee to “customarily and regularly exercise discretion and independent judgment.”15 Discretion and independent judgment involve comparing and evaluating possible courses of conduct and acting or making a decision after considering various possibilities. An employee with discretion and independent judgment must either:

  • Have the power to make independent choices pertaining to matters of significance, free from immediate supervision; or
  • Have the ability to make a recommendation for action that is subject to a superior’s final authority. The employee must possess sufficient authority for the recommendations to affect matters of consequence to the business or its customers.

To “customarily and regularly” exercise discretion and independent judgment is to use discretion and independent judgment frequently in the course of day-to-day activities. The phrase “customarily and regularly” signifies a frequency that is more than occasional but may be less than constant.

These types of activities do not involve exercising discretion and independent judgment:

  • Applying knowledge to follow prescribed procedures
  • Determining which procedures to follow
  • Determining if specified standards are met
  • Determining if an object falls into one or another grade or class

Inspectors and graders, for example, may have some leeway regarding the application of knowledge to a particular situation, but only within closely prescribed limits.

Almost every employee must make decisions requiring discretion. The discretion and independent judgment exemption requires that the decisions must involve matters of consequence of real and substantial significance to the policies or general operations of your business or customers. The tasks can be related directly to only a particular business segment, but must substantially affect the whole business.

Exercising discretion and independent judgment on matters of consequence is different than making decisions that can lead to serious loss through the choice of wrong techniques, improper application of skills, neglect or failure to follow instructions.

Employees in training for an exempt position are not exempt employees because they do not exercise discretion and independent judgment during the training process.

The HR Resources Guide contains data from the Cal Chamber HR California website and other sources. It is intended for the private use of members of the Lodi District Chamber of Commerce only, and is not to be duplicated without consent from Cal Chamber and the Lodi District Chamber of Commerce. All forms must be requested from the Lodi District Chamber of Commerce, and will be provided upon confirmation of membership status.

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