Regular Rate Blues: California Supreme Court’s Decision on Premium Payments and Other Pay Practice Reminders
On July 15, 2021, the California Supreme Court decided in Ferra v. Loews Hollywood Hotel, LLC that employers must pay premium payments to employees for missed meal, rest, and recovery breaks at the employee’s “regular rate of pay” instead of the employee’s base hourly rate, as many employers were doing. The ruling is retroactive, and employers should audit their practices to determine if a true-up payment is necessary.
Under California wage and hour laws, an employer must provide and permit nonexempt employees who work more than five hours in a day an unpaid duty-free meal period of at least 30 minutes in length starting no later than the end of the fifth hour of work. Employees who work no more than six hours in a day may waive the meal period upon written agreement between the company and the employee. In addition, nonexempt employees who work at least three and one-half hours in a day must be provided and permitted a paid 10-minute duty-free rest period for every four hours of work or major fraction thereof, and a second rest period if working up to six hours a day. Employees who work outdoors are entitled to cool-down recovery periods in fixed, shaded areas whenever needed to prevent heat illness.
If an employer doesn’t provide compliant meal, rest, or recovery periods, the employer must pay the employee one additional hour of pay as a “premium” for each workday that the meal, rest or recovery period was not provided. (Labor Code § 226.7.) Before the recent ruling, it was unclear whether this premium should be paid at the employee’s base hourly rate or their “regular rate of pay” which includes all nondiscretionary incentive payments such as bonuses and commissions. The Court settled this issue: the premium must be paid at the regular rate of pay, not the base rate. This is bad news for employers that acted in good faith by paying premium pay at the base hourly rate.
How To Calculate “Regular Rate of Pay”
Regular rate calculation requires employers to include all compensation for hours worked and divide that number by the total hours worked. “All compensation” includes hourly wages, nondiscretionary bonuses, shift differentials, on-call pay, and commissions. In general, most bonuses are considered nondiscretionary and include any bonus that employees know about and expect such as: production bonuses, bonuses for quality of work, bonuses to induce employees to work more efficiently, attendance bonuses, and safety bonuses. Thus, if nonexempt employees are paid a commission, non-discretionary bonus, or other incentive payment, such payment must be factored into the employees’ regular rate in order to compute any applicable overtime or break premium compensation.
Different Rule for Flat Sum Bonus: Note that California law requires the use of a different rule for calculating “regular rate of pay” when employees earn a non-discretionary, flat sum bonus. A flat sum bonus is typically a bonus paid for working a shift that is not tied to any measure of production or efficiency, for example a flat sum bonus for working on a weekend. When calculating the regular rate of pay from a flat sum bonus, the bonus is divided by only the regular, non-overtime hours worked in the workweek instead of all hours.
For examples showing regular rate calculations you can review the Labor Commissioner’s website here.
When To Use Regular Rate
The regular rate of pay is used when calculating overtime, California paid sick leave (see sick leave section below) and now meal and rest pay premiums.
Overtime “True Up” Calculations
If the employees’ bonus or commission is paid out on a weekly basis, the calculation is simple and the additional pay is added to all other wages earned in the workweek and then divided by the total hours worked in that workweek to come up with the regular rate. However, the majority of bonuses and commissions are not paid on a weekly basis and are more often earned and calculated on a monthly or quarterly basis.
If employees earn nondiscretionary bonuses or commissions on a monthly, quarterly, or other non-weekly basis, the amount of the bonus or commission earned must be spread out over the period it was earned by the employee for purposes of the overtime calculation. Employers must apportion the bonus or commission payments to each workweek during the period the amount was earned on a pro rata basis. Once that is done, employers must then recalculate any additional overtime amounts that may be owed over the period the bonus or commissions was earned, and “true up” the amount by paying the employee the difference.
The true up process for overtime or premium payments should be done whenever the bonus or commission payments are made to employees. Any additional overtime or premium amount owed to employees should be paid at the same time as the bonus or commission or in the following pay period. If you have questions regarding the method of calculating the regular rate or “truing up” payments, you should work with legal counsel to ensure employees are being compensated appropriately.
Paid Sick Leave Pay for Hourly Employees Is Also Regular Rate
An often-overlooked provision of California’s paid sick leave law is that the rate of pay for paid sick leave for hourly (non-exempt) employees is also the regular rate, not the straight hourly rate of employees. This is different than how an employer usually pays vacation or PTO time, so it can often slip by even the most seasoned of HR professionals and payroll personnel.
Nonexempt employees must be paid their regular non-overtime hourly rate for the amount of time taken as paid sick leave. To determine the rate of pay for nonexempt employees taking sick leave, the employer may either:
- Calculate the regular rate of pay for the workweek in which the employee used paid sick leave, whether or not they actually worked overtime in that workweek (see above; this is calculated like the “flat sum” bonus), or
- Divide your total compensation for the previous 90 days (excluding overtime premium pay) by the total number of non-overtime hours worked in the full pay periods of the prior 90 days of employment
For exempt employees, paid sick leave is calculated in the same manner the employer calculates wages for other forms of paid leave time (for example, vacation pay or PTO).
This is a good time for employers to review their pay practices and contact their legal counsel to determine what, if any, corrections should be made. Because the ruling is retroactive, there may be an increase in litigation surrounding meal and rest breaks. It is important to be proactive in evaluating risk.