Federal Court Finds Social Workers Do Not Qualify Under The “Learned Professionals” Exemption to FLSA’s Overtime Pay Requirement (Solis v. State of Washington DSHS)
The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (“FLSA”) dictates that employers are free from certain overtime pay requirements if an employee falls into, among others, the “learned professional” exemption. Generally, under the FLSA employees must be compensated for all hours worked in excess of forty per week unless an exemption applies.
To qualify for the “learned professional” exemption, an employer must show that 1) the employee performs work requiring advanced knowledge; 2) the advanced knowledge is in the limited fields of science or learning; 3) the advanced knowledge must be customarily acquired by a prolonged course of specialized intellectual instruction.
The Court has opted to construe the “learned professional” exemption in an extremely narrow manner and it may not be applied to employees who merely have a basic understanding or background of a subject matter. Additionally, the advanced knowledge requirement cannot be satisfied by experience alone rather than through “advanced specialized intellectual instruction.”
In determining whether or not a specific employee falls within the exemption, courts look to his or her job description for guidance. Positions which require a minimum number of course hours or a specific degree closely related to the position are more likely to be eligible for the “learned professional” exemption. Those which broadly call for any degree, or a degree in a wide area, are far less likely to be deemed appropriate for this classification.
For example, if the job description for a social worker position calls for a degree in anthropology, education, or criminal justice, absent more specialized course work requirements, it will not be considered a “learned professional” position.
How Does This Affect Your Business?
Carelessly crafted job descriptions could lead to legal problems for employers. Employers should take a close look at the job requirements and the skills necessary for an employee to fulfill his or her duties. If specialized intellectual knowledge is determined to be a requirement of a position, then an employer should craft the description to reflect this. Absent doing so, an employer may not qualify for the “learned professional” exemption or be able to adequately defend itself for doing so, should the need arise.
If your company works with “learned professional” employees, or would like guidance on how to properly qualify for this exemption, please contact us for more information at firstname.lastname@example.org.