Ninth Circuit rules that state social workers are not “learned professionals” exempt from overtime pay

On September 9, the Ninth Circuit ruled that Washington State social workers are not “learned professionals” exempt from FLSA overtime pay requirements, despite “rigorous” educational and training requirements for the positions.      Candidates for the position of Social Worker 2 were required to have a bachelor’s degree in social services, human services, behavioral sciences, or a related field, as well as eighteen months as a Social Worker 1 or two years of equivalent work experience. Candidates for Social Worker 3 were required to have additional experience beyond that of the Social Worker 2 position.  Additionally, new employees in those positions had to complete six more weeks of training once they are hired.

In siding with the DOL, the Ninth Circuit relied on two DOL opinion letters, which had found that a position requiring social workers to have a master’s degree in certain related fields met the criteria for exemption, but that a position requiring a bachelor’s degree did not, because an undergraduate degree did not rise to the level of specialized academic training required by the regulations to trigger the exemption.  The court noted that the education requirements for the social worker positions were not sufficiently specialized to qualify for the exemption.  On-the-job training and related work experience cannot be substituted for the requisite specialized academic training.

FLSA exemptions are narrowly construed against employers. Employers must therefore be very careful when analyzing whether to apply any overtime exemption

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