Employers sometimes pay bonuses to nonexempt employees without a thought of potential wage and hour compliance. Ann Bares at Compensation Force notes that Companies may pay a “lump sum” merit increase for employees who are topped out of a salary range. Other examples of lump sum payments include attendance and production bonuses, year-end bonuses and holiday gifts.  Bonuses and other lump sum payments may be included in a nonexempt employee’s regular rate depending upon the manner in which the bonus is calculated and the company’s prior communication. Inclusion in the regular rate impacts overtime calculations and payments.

Bonuses paid to nonexempt employees are included in the determination of the employees’ regular rate under section 778.208 unless the bonus falls into one of several exceptions. The bonuses are allocated to the pay period and added to other wages paid to nonexempt employees and then divided by the hours worked for the same period to determine the new regular rate under the methodology described in section 778.209. For bonuses earned over more than one workweek, the bonus must be allocated to pay periods to which the bonus applies and the regular rate recalculated. If overtime was worked during this period, the overtime rate must be revised to be time and a half the recalculated regular rate that includes the bonus payment. This is a nightmare.

Department of Labor regulations provide for several exclusions. Among these excludable bonus payments are discretionary bonuses, gifts and payments in the nature of gifts on special occasions, contributions by the employer to certain welfare plans and payments made by the employer pursuant to certain profit-sharing, thrift and savings plans. These exemptions are discussed in Section 778.211 Discretionary Bonuses, Section 778.212 Gifts and Holiday Bonuses, Section 778.213 Qualified Profit Sharing and Savings Plans, and Section  778.214 Other Qualified Plans.  Bonuses, which do not qualify for exclusion from the regular rate as one of these types, must be totaled in with other earnings to determine the regular rate on which overtime pay must be based.

Typically, any bonus announced in advance and tied to work performance, hours or other productivity will not qualify for an exemption.  There three ways to manage the recalculation problem, other than utilizing qualified plans:

1.            Percentage Total Earnings Bonus: Bonuses based on a percentage of the nonexempt employee’s total earnings under section 778.210 do not result in a recalculation of the regular rate because overtime is already been accounted for in the calculation. Under this method, the bonus is described as a percentage of the nonexempt employee’s total (W-2) earnings, thereby including both regular and overtime payments and obviating the need for recalculation of the regular rate.

2.            Discretionary Bonuses: This is an area of DOL audit scrutiny and should not be used on a regular or aggressive basis. Truly discretionary bonuses are not included in the regular rate of pay under section 778.211, if both the fact that payment is to be made and the amount of the payment are determined at the sole discretion of the employer at or near the end of the period and not pursuant to any prior contract, agreement, or promise causing the employee to expect such payments regularly. The following sets forth some of the parameters of the exclusion:

For example, any bonus which is promised to employees upon hiring or which is the result of collective bargaining would not be excluded from the regular rate under this provision of the Act. Bonuses which are announced to employees to induce them to work more steadily or more rapidly or more efficiently or to remain with the firm are regarded as part of the regular rate of pay. Attendance bonuses, individual or group production bonuses, bonuses for quality and accuracy of work, bonuses contingent upon the employee’s continuing in employment until the time the payment is to be made and the like are in this category. They must be included in the regular rate of pay.

3.            Holiday Bonuses: The Holiday Gift and Bonus exemption under section 778.212 allows for the exclusion from calculation of an employees “regular rate” of pay “sums paid as gifts; payments in the nature of gifts made at Christmas time or on other special occasions, as a reward for service, the amounts of which are not measured by or dependent upon hours worked, production, or efficiency….” The following sets forth some of the parameters of the exclusion:

If the bonus paid at Christmas or on other special occasion is a gift or in the nature of a gift, it may be excluded from the regular rate under section 7(e)(1) even though it is paid with regularity so that the employees are led to expect it and even though the amounts paid to different employees or groups of employees vary with the amount of the salary or regular hourly rate of such employees or according to their length of service with the firm so long as the amounts are not measured  by or directly dependent upon hours worked, production, or efficiency. A Christmas bonus paid (not pursuant to contract) in the amount of two weeks’ salary to all employees and an equal additional amount for each 5 years of service with the firm, for example, would be excludable from the regular rate under this category.