FLSA Overtime Exemptions – The Learned Professional Exemption

Welcome to the final installment of my series on the white collar overtime exemptions.  This article addresses the learned professional exemption, which applies primarily to highly educated employees. The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) states that “professionals” are exempt from overtime. The Department of Labor has interpreted this phrase as referring to “learned professionals” who meet the following three-part test:

  • The employee’s primary duty requires advanced knowledge, is predominantly intellectual in character, and requires the consistent exercise of discretion and judgment;

  • The employee works a field of science or learning; and

  • The advanced knowledge must be customarily acquired by a prolonged course of specialized intellectual instruction.

This article discusses each of these three requirements in turn. It also discusses the related exemption for creative professionals such as artists and musicians. As with the other white collar exemptions, learned professionals must be paid a minimal salary of at least $455 a week in accordance with the salary basis test.

Advanced Knowledge Which is Predominantly Intellectual in Character and Requires Discretion

A learned professional’s job must be primarily intellectual in character, and must require the consistent exercise of discretion and judgment. (Careful readers will note that the exercise of individual discretion and judgment is a key component of all of the white collar exemptions). People who perform rote or routine work are not learned professionals.

This advanced knowledge cannot be learned at the high school level – a learned professional must have a college degree, and in many circumstances will have an advanced degree. This high level of academic achievement is the defining attribute of the learned professional exemption, and employees whose work does not require an advanced education are not exempt under this provision.

The Advanced Knowledge Must Be in a Field of Science or Learning

A learned professional  must work in a “field of science or learning.” This phrase is broadly defined, and the regulations give several examples including law, medicine, theology, accounting, actuarial computation, engineering, and architecture. This is not an exclusive list, and many other fields also qualify, provided that they involve knowledge gained after a long course of study.

To qualify as a “field of science or learning,” the work must be primarily intellectual in character.  Manual jobs do not qualify, even if they are complex.  An electrician’s job is certainly complicated, and requires a specialized knowledge of circuit design and safety.  Nonetheless, electricians do not qualify as learned professionals because this is not considered a “field of science or learning.”

The Knowledge Is Customarily Acquired By A Prolonged Course Of Specialized Intellectual Instruction

Finally, the advanced knowledge must be customarily acquired by a prolonged course of specialized intellectual instruction. This essentially means a college degree or its equivalent.

Not every employee with a college degree is a learned professional. In order to qualify as a learned professional, the worker’s degree must be specifically geared towards the work he or she actually performs. If the job position simply requires that the employee have a college degree of some kind, those workers likely do not qualify as a learned professional. For example, a company advertising for an entry-level bookkeeper position may require applicants to have a college degree in a general business or liberal arts-related field. This is not sufficiently specialized to qualify a learned professional. By contrast, if the position requires applicants to have a degree in accounting or finance only, along with a CPA designation, it would qualify.  Learned professionals will often – but not always – hold a post-graduate degree or certification.  In fact, one of the clearest hallmarks of the FLSA professional exemption is a position that is limited to individuals with specialized master’s degrees or doctorates.

Creative Professionals

The FLSA professional exemption also includes creative professionals such as artists, musicians, writers, and other creative workers. To qualify as a creative professional, the individual must exercise ‘‘invention, imagination, originality or talent’’ in a recognized creative endeavor.  This exemption is usually fairly straightforward to apply. Unlike the learned professional exemption, there is no requirement that a creative professional hold a college degree.

If you have any questions about the application of the learned professional exemption or creative professional exemption, or believe that you may have been misclassified as overtime exempt, call New Orleans overtime lawyer Charles Stiegler at (504) 267-0777 or email today.