Seyfarth Synopsis: With the recent partial shutdown of the federal government, many federal contractors have faced tough decisions balancing their reduced revenue with their desire to keep their workforce intact. One potential solution is to impose mandatory employee furloughs to reduce costs. This cost-saving measure has some risks peculiar to California that are worth a look.
The Partial Federal Government Shutdown
On December 22, 2018, key parts of the federal government shut down after politicians reached an impasse over budget spending. By some estimates, the shutdown, lasting until January 25, 2019, cost the economy over $10 billion. The shutdown affected not only 800,000 federal employees but several million government contractors. Shutdowns of this type—the third since January 2017—look to become a regular feature of American politics.
One obvious shutdown impact is reduced revenue for federal contractors. Companies that perform everything from janitorial services to complex Defense Department analysis are suddenly left with revenue that could be significantly lower than previous projections.
So what do companies do when their biggest client shuts down for days, weeks, or even months? Some companies have turned to employee furloughs in an attempt to solve their revenue gap problem. Furloughs are mandatory time off work without pay. Furloughs can be seen as a good solution because the company reduces its payroll expenses while keeping its workforce in place.
Generally, furloughs fall into two categories, partial-week and full-week. We examine both types of furloughs below, as each raises peculiar issues under California law. Note that this discussion is limited to issues raised by furloughs of exempt employees. Because non-exempt employees are paid on a time-worked basis, furloughs of non-exempt employees do not raise the same legal issues as furloughs of salaried exempt employees.
Partial-week furloughs occur when the employer reduces an employee’s workweek. For example, some employers move employees to a four- or even three-day workweek. Under California law, partial-week furloughs are permissible, but care must be given to the arrangement. First, the salary reductions should be done in advance of the furlough to avoid being seen as a “deduction” from an exempt employee’s salary for missed work days. Advance reductions in salaried employee pay to reflect long-term business needs does not destroy the salary basis for an employee’s exemption. But day-to-day or short-term deductions from an employee’s salary would. Along those lines, employers should consider implementing the changes for a substantial period of time, making it look like more of an adjustment to medium or long-term economic forecasts than a short-term reaction to transitory business conditions. Second, companies must ensure that the reduced salary does not fall below the minimum monthly salary rate for exempt employees, which California currently sets at $4,160 for large employers.
The California DLSE has determined that a properly executed week-long furlough of exempt employees will not result in those employee losing an exemption. To be done properly, the furlough must have the employee not performing any work during the defined workweek during the furlough. An employee who performs any work at all must be paid for the full week. Further, reasonable advance notice must be given to employees before the furlough begins. As with the partial-week furlough, the employee’s salary cannot dip below the minimum salary threshold for exempt employees.
Finally, employers should ensure that the furlough is not too long and has a clearly defined return-to-work date. If the furlough is too long or if no return date is designated, it may be deemed a termination, entitling the employee to all final wages, including vacation.
Other Issues Implicated By Furloughs
As if the wage and hour issues raised above were not enough, employee furloughs raise many other legal challenges as well. For example, do your executive contracts have severance provisions that may be triggered with salary reductions over a certain threshold? Does the company’s benefits plan include a definition of eligible employees that may be implicated by furloughs? Indeed, as we have previously discussed in this blog, employee furloughs might even inadvertently trigger California’s WARN notice requirements. All of this is to say employers are well-served by being careful and seeking experienced counsel in this area.