Perhaps one of the most misunderstood and improperly applied issues in California is how to treat commissioned sales people. Here are some of the most common mistakes I’ve encountered that can create substantial liability for employers.

Mistake: Treating all commissioned sales people as exempt employees (i.e. paying them a straight salary). 

Usually there are two exemptions that sales people could qualify for: outside sales exemption or inside sales exemption under California law. If the employee meets one of these exemptions, it only means the employee is not entitled to overtime pay – all other wage and hour laws still apply. 

Outside Sales Exemption

To qualify for the outside sales exemption, as the name implies, the employee must work outside of the office for more than 50% of their working time. 

Inside Sales Exemption

To qualify for the inside sales exemption, the employee must (1) earn more than one-and-one-half times the minimum wage (as of November 2008 the minimum wage is $8.00/hr in California) and (2) more than one-half of the employee’s compensation is from commissions. Employers have to be careful because there is no equivalent exemption to the inside sales exemption under Federal law –and even though an employee may qualify to be exempt under California law for overtime, they still may have to pay overtime under Federal law. 

It is possible that the employee may qualify for another exemption, such as professional, administrative, or executive, but the two exemptions discuss above most often apply to sales personnel.

Mistake: Making illegal deductions from the employee’s pay for orders that were cancelled.

There have been several court decisions that significantly restrict an employer’s ability to take an offset against an employee’s wages.  Cases have held that employers may not make deductions from employees’ commissions when the customer returns the sold items under certain circumstances. Also, another case held that the requirement that the employee make a “balloon payment” for the entire remaining balance of outstanding loan owed to the employer when the employee leaves employment is an unlawful deduction – even where the employee authorized such payment in writing. Finally, another case held that it was unlawful for employers to deduct from an employee’s current payroll for past salary advances that were in error. As these cases illustrate, employers need to be very careful when deducting from an employee’s pay. Even though the deduction may seem innocent, it could possibly violate California law.