Are You a “Learned Professional” and Unable to Receive Overtime Pay?

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Your advanced degree may exempt you from receiving overtime pay.

Under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), so-called “learned professionals” are included in the categories of employees who are exempt from overtime pay. To qualify as a learned professional:

  • You must receive at least $455 per week on a salary or fee basis;
  • Your primary duty must be the performance of work that requires “advanced knowledge” (work that is primarily intellectual in character) and require you to exercise discretion and judgment;
  • The advanced knowledge must be in a field of science or learning; and
  • The advanced knowledge must ordinarily be acquired by a “prolonged course of specialized intellectual instruction.”

A recent decision illustrates how employers may try to use the learned professional exemption to their advantage.

The U.S. Department of Labor sued the State of Washington’s Department of Social and Health Services (“DSHS”) and alleged that DSHS failed to pay overtime compensation to certain social workers, in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that, because the social worker positions at issue required only a degree in one of several diverse academic disciplines (or sufficient coursework in one of those disciplines), versus a “particular course of intellectual instruction”, DSHS had not shown that its social worker positions met the FLSA exemption for “learned professionals”.

 In its September 9, 2011 opinion in Solis v. State of Washington Dep’t of Soc. & Health Servs., the court said that, in order for the “learned professional” exemption to apply, an employer must show that the position in question requires “advanced knowledge customarily acquired by a prolonged course of specialized intellectual instruction.”  Because DSHS failed to make that showing, the social workers were entitled to overtime pay.

The opinion is a reminder that the employer has the burden to show that it is entitled to an FLSA exemption. That’s because the FLSA is aimed at employee protection.

If you believe that your employer has improperly withheld overtime pay, tell us your story.

Abbey Spanier, LLP , located in New York City, is a well-recognized national class action and complex litigation law firm.