I learned something new at work today and I thought I’d share it with the community, as I know there are others who share the same incorrect information that I had. I fully expect many (most?) people reading this to see it as a “well, duh!” kind of thing, but this isn’t aimed at you people, so shhhh!
In a nutshell: salaries and time away from the job work very differently than I thought they did.
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, when I made the leap from an underpaid hourly wage slave to an overpaid salaried snob, someone sat with me in an office and tried to explain to me how being a salaried employee actually works. Either I completely misunderstood them, or more likely I was too busy goggling at the extra-phat paycheck to properly pay attention. What I heard was:
The difference between salaried and hourly is a sort of gamble made by the employer — if they think you are going to work more 50-hour weeks than 30-hour weeks, they can anoint you with the special title of Salaried. This means two things. First, you are probably also Exempt, which means that you make too much to qualify for overtime. Second, you get paid the same whether you work 30 hours or 50 hours or 5 hours — that’s the whole salary thing.
This is, of course, dangerously wrong. The truth is always more complicated when it comes to people parting with their money:
- The gamble part is mostly true — there’s nothing that requires a person to be hourly, nor to be salaried, nor to be paid in lump sums, nor to be paid in US Dollars. The only requirement is that you do get paid. The details are all between you and your employer.
- The Exempt part is also mostly true — there’s a list of job types that are screwed out of overtime. Why? I have no idea. Point being, if you are a programmer and you make more than $27/hr or $455/wk, you’re screwed.
- The “paid the same no matter what” isn’t nearly as true as we’d all like it to be. There’s yet another list of exceptions, this time preventing an employer from docking your pay if you are salaried. The list is very short and mostly boils down to your employer not being able to dock your pay if you were provably sick and have a Sick Leave plan. Otherwise, they can dock your pay for not working a 40-hour week. However, the upside is that if they don’t have a justifiable reason for docking your pay, and you can prove it, you get to go to court. Huzzah. (You basically claim that your employer has violated the rules of your Exempt status, thus making you again subject to overtime laws, at which point you can squeeze them for all those 70-hour weeks.)
Of course, I’m not implying that any of this is somehow fair. I’m just relaying what is legal.
I ran into this because I took two days off this week. It turns out that when our department made up the vacation schedule for the end of the year, I biffed it and thought I had more free time than I actually did. This is the first time in any job since I became a salaried employee that I have ever managed to use all of my vacation time in a single year, so I’d never had reason to question my broken understanding of wage law. So, I had a dark moment of Monty Burnsian hand-wringing as I thought “finally, I have revenge for all that unpaid overtime”.
Until HR politely informed me that I couldn’t do simple math and that the day could come out of my sick time or be unpaid. D’oh!
And thus we come back to the beginning of my tale. If you’d like to know more about wage law, a cursory introduction doesn’t take more than about 30 minutes. Here are some web sites that will help you out:
- WorkPlaceFairness.org: Overtime Exemptions (see Question 5 for when your employer can legally make deductions from your salary)
- US Dept. of Labor: Employment Standards Administration — Wage and Hour Division
- Wikipedia: Salary, Fair Labor Standards Act