Calculating the correct overtime pay rate in California has long been a complicated process.  The basic overtime rate is defined as one and a half times an employee’s “regular rate” of pay.  This purportedly “regular” figure may change from pay period to pay period when an employee earns shift differentials, different hourly rates for different jobs, or lump sum bonuses.  Such was the case in Alvarado v. Dart Container Corporation of California.

In Alvarado, the California Supreme Court considered the correct method of calculating overtime when an employee is paid a flat sum bonus.  The parties offered competing calculations to the Court.  The employer’s method spread the per-hour value of the bonus across all hours worked in a given pay period—including overtime hours.  The employee argued that the bonus should only be spread across the non-overtime hours worked.  In choosing between the two approaches, the Court emphasized California’s pro-employee policies:  “[W]e are obligated to prefer an interpretation that discourages employers from imposing overtime work and that favors the protection of the employee’s interests.”  The Court found that plaintiff’s version was “marginally more favorable to employees.”  Unfortunately, this doesn’t tell the whole story.  The opinion apparently requires employers to calculate the regular rate based on the “relevant pay period.”  This is inconsistent with established California and Federal principles that require regular rate calculations be performed on a weekly basis.  A “friend of the court,” or Amicus brief, was filed in this case on this very issue, and we are hopeful that the Court will issue an amended opinion, or other clarification.worker marking paper next to calculator

In the meantime, let’s look at an example. Suppose an employee works 90 hours in a two-week pay period (including ten hours of overtime), and the employee receives $15 per hour and a $100 bonus.  The value of the bonus must be calculated by dividing the $100 by the 80 non-overtime hours worked, which comes out to $1.25 per hour.  This would then be added to the employee’s straight time rate for an effective regular rate of $16.25 per hour.  Of course, the next step is to multiply the regular rate by 1.5 to obtain the basic overtime rate, and then multiply the number of overtime hours worked by the overtime rate.

The fun didn’t end there.  The Court drew a distinction between flat sum bonuses, like the one at issue in Alvarado, and bonuses that increase in rough proportion to the hours worked—such as piecework or commission bonuses.  In these cases, the Court stated “the payment of the bonus itself constitutes base compensation, including base compensation for overtime work, in which case one might be able to argue that only the overtime premium need be added.”  In other words, different bonuses require different overtime calculations.  Adding insult to injury, the Court proclaimed this interpretation is to be applied retroactively.

The big takeaway here is that employers must take a closer look at their bonus plans and overtime calculations to ensure compliance with the new standard.  Isn’t math fun?