If your sanctuary is based in the United States and is in a position to hire employees (and they aren’t independent contractors), it’s important to know your responsibilities when it comes to classifying your employees as Exempt or Non-Exempt. This designation can have a big impact on how you coordinate and manage your sanctuary’s operations, and failing to properly classify your employees can have significant repercussions!
The majority of workers, especially those who are working for an hourly wage, should be classified as non-exempt employees. When an employee is designated non-exempt, this means that they are subject to all of the protections of the United States federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). In practice, this means:
- You must pay these employees your state’s minimum hourly wage.
- You must pay them overtime if they work greater than 40 hours in a week. Federally, this is 1.5 times their regular hourly pay, but your state might have a higher minimum for overtime pay than the federal standard.
- Your state might have its own laws governing non-exempt employees that you’ll have to follow in addition to the federal laws.
There are other protections granted by the FLSA to non-exempt employees, but typically many of these protections are granted to all employees by other state and federal labor protection laws.
When an employee is designated exempt, this means that they are not subject to the protections of the FLSA. There is no requirement to pay them minimum wage by the hour, and there is no requirement to pay them overtime should they exceed 40 hours of work in a week (though they can be paid overtime at your discretion).
Because there are fewer protections granted to an exempt employee, the rules are more complex to classify an employee as exempt. An exempt employee must:
- Get paid on a salary basis rather than by the hour for any week that they work (the salary minimum requirement for exempt employees varies by state).
- Fit into FLSA-recognized category of job duty that can be granted exemption: Executive, Professional or Administrative workers are given this consideration.
The FLSA’s exemption job duties are intentionally open to broad interpretation so that a wide variety of professions can be categorized by the system. Generally, exempt workers are performing high-level duties for your organization. The United States Department of Labor has extensive documentation available for clarifying the exemption status for certain jobs, some of which are almost always categorised as exempt due to the nature of their work responsibilities. Job duties vary by category, but generally, employees are considered exempt if:
- (Executive) An employee manages the organization or a division of it, supervises at least two full-time staff members, and has a major say in other employees’ job status.
- (Administrative) An employee primarily does office-based tasks that serve administrative operations and is given the opportunity regularly to use their discretion in making decisions.
- (Professional) An employee primarily does original creative or artistic work, or has to do intellectual work that requires exceptional knowledge to perform their job (or had to get a specialized degree to perform it), and are given the opportunity to make judgement calls regularly.
- (Professional) An employee has to travel frequently for work in order to perform their job.
Because many employees, especially those working in the frequently “all hands on deck” environment of a sanctuary, sometimes wear many hats or have fluid roles, it’s not always easy to pin down where they might be categorized, but if they generally fit into the above scenarios in a typical workday, it’s usually safe to classify them as exempt.
Per the FLSA, all non-exempt employees must have their hours worked accurately tracked, whereas exempt employees do not have this requirement. Thus, it should be considered more important to evaluate whether exempt employees are getting all of their duties done to your sanctuary’s expectations, rather than managing their hourly schedules. If an exempt employee needs to have their pay adjusted due to not being at work, it must be deducted by the day rather than the hour.
Exemption Status At An Animal Sanctuary
In a sanctuary environment, you’ll have to carefully look at your organization’s typical needs and job roles that must be filled before deciding how each of your employee roles must be legally categorized.
People working in the day-to-day operations of your facilities who have relatively predictable hours should be designated as non-exempt, including caregivers (especially if you have multiple rotating caregivers and do not expect them to be on call for frequent late night additional care), bookkeepers, tour guides, facilities technicians, paid interns, and those who do routine office work. In practice, these roles should be able to fit their duties into 40 easily trackable hours each week. If an employee is frequently working well beyond 40 hours a week, it’s likely that their job duties might fall into exempt status (or you need to hire more employees!).
Employees that have to work non-standard hours by virtue of your sanctuary’s needs likely have an area of expertise or administrative responsibility that will categorize them as exempt. This could include departmental managers, administrative leadership, animal care experts required to be on call at all times, and other people whose hours must be flexible in order to do their job.
If You Misclassify Or Need To Reclassify An Employee
Regardless of how you decide to classify each employee at your sanctuary or whatever title you give them, you are still required to follow whichever rules of whichever designation they are functionally serving. For instance, if you have assumed all your employees are exempt but some of them don’t meet the appropriate exemption category rules based on their duties, you are still obliged to pay them overtime. Deciding to pay someone a salary and not tracking their hours does not necessarily grant them exempt status in the eyes of the law. If a labor audit finds that you’ve misclassified anyone, there can be significant repercussions and financial penalties (including back wages and taxes for unpaid overtime), so you should regularly review every employee’s functional role and how you’re compensating them.
Sometimes people’s roles and responsibilities change as an organization grows and they might need to transition between the two designations. If you do realize that an employee needs to be reclassified, you must be transparent in this process! It’s very likely that there will be necessary changes to how they track their day-to-day work and how their hourly expectations may change. You might also need to be prepared for some overtime reimbursement in the event of a reclassification. You may need to assure an “exempt to non-exempt” employee that this is not a demotion or critique of their performance, but a way of ensuring that everyone is being legally compensated for the job expected of them. After all, sometimes a non-exempt employee will earn more hourly than they did on salary!
All of this may seem like one more layer of complexity to add to your sanctuary’s plate, but it’s critical to understand these labor laws and be vigilant in adhering to them. The consequences of misclassification are too serious to ignore, both for your organization and employees!