Store managers often do the same work as their employees. They work the cash registers, respond to customer inquiries, even stock the shelves. While doing this more menial work, they can still do the things that managers are supposed to do, including supervising their underlings.
Generally store managers receive a salary and are considered executives exempt from overtime. But does working the floor make them no longer exempt? Not under federal law. Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, or “FLSA,” employees are exempt so long as their “primary duty” is executive. Store managers can spend the majority of their time in grunt work and still not get overtime.
Thanks to Linda Heyen, in California those managers must get overtime. Heyen worked as assistant manager and interim manager at an Oceanside Safeway. As manager, she put in 15-hour days. Twelve of those hours she spent doing the work of hourly employees, including checking, stocking, and bookkeeping. A little math showed her that, with her $50,000 annual salary, Safeway paid her less an hour than it had before she was a manager. She sued for unpaid overtime and got $26,00o plus interest and her attorney’s fees.
Last Thursday, a Court of Appeal said Safeway indeed owed Heyen the money. Heyen had admitted she could manage the store’s 30 employees from the check stand and could observe its general conditions while stocking shelves. But, said the court, because she did not spend most of her time working as a manager, Safeway had to pay her overtime.
California law’s test for exemption is phrased slightly different than the FLSA’s. In this state, an exempt employee must be “primarily engaged” in the duties that are exempt. “Primarily engaged” means that Heyen had to have spent the majority of her time only in those duties. Because she spent most her time working the floor, she was not “primarily engaged” in managing.
Now, if Safeway needs checkers and stockers, it will have to hire them. It can no longer get essentially free labor by making exempt managers do the work.