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Can an employee do exempt and nonexempt work at the same time?

“Not in California” was the answer that Safeway recently received from the Second District Court of Appeal in Los Angeles. Heyen v. Safeway Inc., Case No. B237418 (May 23, 2013).

Linda Heyen was responsible for all store operations at Safeway’s Oceanside store, but, she also had to do bookkeeping and other nonexempt work. She was able to manage the store while doing lower level work. For example, when she was stocking shelves, she was also observing general conditions in the store. Safeway classified her as an exempt employee, but she sued for overtime, claiming that she was really a nonexempt employee.

The California wage orders establish an “executive” exemption for those who manage a customarily recognized unit of the employer and are “primarily engaged” in executive duties. (Wage Order No. 7-2001 applied to Safeway.) “Primarily” means “more than one-half the employee’s work time.”

Safeway argued that Heyen spent more than half her time on executive duties, because whenever she was performing nonexempt work she was also keeping an eye on general operations. The Court of Appeal disagreed. The test requires the fact finder to determine the employee’s purpose for each task. If the purpose is to supervise employees or contribute to the smooth functioning of the unit, the task exempt work. Otherwise, it is nonexempt work.

The result might have been different under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act. The FLSA regulations use a “primary duty” rather than a “primarily engaged” test. Under that test, “assistant managers in a retail establishment who perform exempt executive work such as supervising and directing the work of other employees, ordering merchandise, managing the budget and authorizing payment of bills may have management as their primary duty even if the assistant managers spend more than 50 percent of the time performing nonexempt work such as running the cash register. However, if such assistant managers are closely supervised and earn little more than the nonexempt employees, the assistant managers generally would not satisfy the primary duty requirement.” 29 CFR 541.700(c).