Should You Work Overtime as a Salaried Employee?

One of the rudest early career awakenings is that “salaried” employees don’t get paid overtime. After sweating it out in your first teenage job for minimum wage, then working your way up the ladder with the reward of time-and-a-half for extra hours, this realization is a cruel twist. The good news is that you’re being promoted and have more responsibility—the bad news is that you’ll be working more than 40 hours without overtime pay. So, should you work “overtime” as a salaried employee?

The short answer is yes. Let’s dig into the details.


Exempt vs. nonexempt employees

The more accurate term for “salaried employee” is “exempt employee,” using the terminology of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), the federal law that governs overtime pay. If you are nonexempt, you must receive at least time and one-half your regular pay rate for all hours you work over 40 in a workweek, which is defined as a period of 168 hours during seven consecutive 24-hour periods. Although many employees are paid on a semi-monthly or biweekly basis, the overtime cannot be averaged over a two-week period. For example, if a nonexempt employee works 46 hours in one week and 38 hours in the next, then they would be entitled to 78 hours of pay at the regular hourly rate and six hours of “overtime” pay (time and a half).

But what about the employee who is classified exempt who works 46 hours in one week and 38 hours in the next? That employee receives 80 hours of pay at their hourly rate. They do not receive extra compensation for the six hours of “overtime,” and they do not receive a pay reduction for the two hours not worked. They can only be required to take leave (whether it’s vacation, personal, or sick leave or a generic paid time off, per company policy and state/local laws) in full eight-hour increments. If you are sick for the full day, you take eight hours of your leave. If you spend two hours at the dentist, you do not take leave.

Of course, there are caveats and legal intricacies with all of this, and your supervisor and human resources department should be well-versed in how all of this applies to your specific position and in your locality. But, generally, this is how exempt and nonexempt employees are treated differently.

When is an employee exempt?

FLSA allows an employer to classify positions as exempt if they meet the following criteria: the position is paid at least $684 per week, and the position involves executive, administrative, professional, computer, and/or outside sales duties with a certain amount of discretion and independent judgment. Again, there are caveats, but this is the general definition.

Why should exempt employees work “overtime”?

Get ready for some tough love. If you want to progress in your career under the current federal employment laws of the United States, you will need to work more than 40 hours each week as an exempt employee. How often you must do so will depend on your specific position and your job responsibilities. For instance, if you’re a tax accountant, you can expect to work far more hours in March and April than you do at other times of the year.

Whether this is “right” is of course up for debate—but the expectation is that exempt employees will get the job done, no matter how many hours it takes. Sometimes an employer will ask too much of you, and your work-life balance will be skewed. Unfortunately, there’s not a legal solution for this. If you cannot achieve a sustainable balance working with your supervisor to achieve needed flexibility and time away, your best option is to find another position that better suits you. You must be your own advocate in the professional world, and sometimes, taking care of yourself means packing up your marbles and finding somewhere else to play.

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