Carrie Mason-Draffen Newsday columnist Carrie Mason Draffen

Mason-Draffen, a business reporter, writes a column about workplace issues.

DEAR CARRIE: I work 40 hours a week at a new job. One week I worked four extra hours and expected to receive overtime pay. But the human resources director told me I wouldn't get paid for those hours because I am an exempt employee. I have no idea why I am considered exempt, because I'm not a manager nor do I make any critical decisions for the company. Please explain how I can be considered an exempt employee. Also, I was docked for Christmas Day and New Year's Day. The office was closed, and so was the building. I couldn't have worked if I wanted to. Is this legal?

-- Exempt or Not?

DEAR EXEMPT: Let's start with the docking issue first. If by "docked" you mean that your employer deducted from your paid time off to cover the holiday closings, that is legal, whether you are exempt or nonexempt.

Whether it is legal to dock employees' pay when an office closes is a more complex issue. A company can legally dock the pay of nonexempt, or hourly employees, because they have to be paid only for the hours they work. So if they don't work, for whatever reason, the company doesn't have to pay them.

But the docking would be illegal if you are exempt. The pay of exempt workers, who don't have to be paid for any extra hours they work, can't legally be docked if the workers are unable to work through no fault of their own.

"Most employees who are exempt from overtime requirements and paid on a salary basis are not subject to deductions to their weekly salaries because of an office closure," said attorney Howard M. Wexler of Seyfarth Shaw in Manhattan.

So exempt employees -- who must earn at least $455 a week, or, if they are executive or administrative employees, at least $600 -- have to be paid their regular salary, even when the business closes for the day. If you are indeed exempt and your company docked your pay when it closed the office, it violated labor law.

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Penalties for such violations can be steep.

"An employer that improperly reduces an exempt employee's salary might lose or jeopardize the ability to treat the employee as exempt from overtime pay requirements -- potentially a very costly mistake," Wexler said.

As for determining your status, even though you aren't a manager, you could fall into the other exempt categories, Wexler said. Besides the executive exemption, which covers managers, other exempt categories are administrative, professional and outside sales. Jobs like executive secretary and registered nurse are exempt positions, if employees' duties justify the titles.

If you still think you're not exempt, you should speak with your HR director again to clarify your status. Or call the U.S. Labor Department at 516- 338-1890 for more information.

DEAR CARRIE: You wrote some time ago that whether someone had reached full retirement age for Social Security benefits depended on the person's birth date. This is confusing because I thought full retirement age was defined as the same for everyone -- regardless of their birth date -- and that it was 66.

-- Age-Old Question


DEAR AGE-OLD: Age 65 used to be the full retirement age for everybody, and it is still the magic number for those born before 1938. But for those born later, full retirement age has been pushed back as much as two years.

For example, people born between 1943 and 1954, which include a lot of Baby Boomers, reach full retirement at age 66. So if they want to avoid reduced monthly Social Security benefits, they must wait until age 66 to receive payments. Those born in 1960 and later reach the magic number when they turn 67.

CLARIFICATION: The original version of this column neglected to mention the state minimum weekly wage that must be paid to executive and administrative employees who are exempt from overtime. They must earn at least $600, which would supersede the federal mandate of $455 a week.

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