The case Pellegrino v. Robert Half International, Inc. (RHI) was brought by recruiters alleging that RHI failed to comply with Labor Code provisions pertaining to overtime compensation, commissions, meal periods, itemized wage statements, and unfair competition (under Business and Professions Code section 17200). 

As defenses, RHI argued that Plaintiffs’ claims were barred because they all entered into agreements that shortened their statute of limitations down from four years to six months. RHI also argued that the Plaintiffs were exempt from wage and hour laws because the employees qualified for the administrative exemption. The appellate court, in agreeing with the lower trial court, dismissed RHI’s defense that the Plaintiffs’ agreed to a shorter statute of limitation on the grounds that this agreement violated public policy and is unenforceable.

The Administrative Exemption

Employers bear the burden to prove that the employee does not qualify for overtime of one and a half times the employee’s regular hourly rate for all work performed over eight hours in one day and/or all hours over 40 in one week. Employees can qualify for a number of different exemptions, and in this case RHI argued that the Plaintiffs were administrative employees.

In order to qualify for the administrative exemption, the court noted that the employer must prove that the employee must:

(1) perform office or non manual work directly related to management policies or general business operations’ of the employer or its customers,

(2) customarily and regularly exercise discretion and independent judgment,

(3) perform under only general supervision work along specialized or technical lines requiring special training or execute under only general supervision special assignments and tasks,

(4) be engaged in the activities meeting the test for the exemption at least 50 percent of the time, and

(5) earn twice the state’s minimum wage.

The employee must meet all five elements in order to be an exempt administrative employee.

The court explained, by quoting the applicable regulations, that:

“The phrase ‘directly related to management policies or general business operations of his employer or his employer’s customers’ describes those types of activities relating to the administrative operations of a business as distinguished from ‘production’ or, in a retail or service establishment, ‘sales’ work. In addition to describing the types of activities, the phrase limits the exemption to persons who perform work of substantial importance to the management or operation of the business of his employer or his employer’s customers.”

The court found that the evidence did not support RHI’s argument that the Plaintiffs were administrative employees. The court explained that the account executives were trained in sales and evaluated on how well they met sales production numbers – which are not exempt duties. The account executives were also primarily responsible for selling the services of RHI’s temporary employees to its clients. And when they were not selling, they were recruiting more candidates for RHI’s “inventory.” The account executives also followed a “recipe” established by the company which required the employees to rotate their duties ever week between a “sales week,” “desk week,” and recruiting week.” The employees did not develop any policy, but simply followed the company’s system of performing their job. The court finally noted that the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE) previously opined that recruiters who worked in a recruiting company did not qualify for the administrative exemption (which can be read at the DLSE’s website here (PDF)). All of these facts supported the trial court’s finding that the employer failed to meet its burden that the account executives were administrative employees.

This case is a good reminder to employers that they must be careful about how employees are classified. Simply because the employee has a high-level title, or every employer in the particular industry has always treated this type of employee as an exempt employee does not mean that the employees are properly classified. Courts will strictly apply the applicable exemption element-by-element to determine whether or not the employer must pay the employee overtime and provide meal and rest breaks. Finally, employers must remember that they will bear the burden of proof when asserting in court that the employee is properly classified as an exempt employee.

The case, Pellegrino v. Robert Half International, Inc. can be downloaded here (PDF).