Nine Years Later: The US DOL Reinstates Guidance on the Status of Coaches Under the Fair Labor Standards Act

Mike Staebell, Iowa Wage & Hour Watch, Dickinson Law Firm, Des Moines Iowa, Iowa Employment & Labor Law

Posted on 07/02/2018 at 03:35 PM by Mike Staebell

This summer, as teachers enjoy their vacations and administrators consider coaching staffing needs for the 2018-2019 school year, it is a good time to consider recent USDOL guidance regarding the classification of coaches under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).


For years, schools of all kinds struggled with how to classify and pay coaches to be compliant with the FLSA.  Coaches, especially those at the junior high and high school level, work irregular hours based on a sport’s season. The nature of the work often makes it difficult to accurately recording their work time.  The statute and regulations were unclear: are coaches considered non-exempt under the FLSA, and thereby required to record all hours worked, and receive at least the minimum wage and overtime pay when they work over 40 hours per week?  Or can coaching, as with teaching, fall under the FLSA’s Professional exemption, making coaches exempt from FLSA minimum wage, overtime, and recordkeeping provisions?  And what about coaches who are also employed in other capacities by the school?   Confusion abounded.    

In January 2009, at the close of the Bush administration, the DOL’s Wage and Hour Division (WHD) issued an Opinion Letter stating that coaches could be considered teachers, and exempt as professionals.   Clarity was provided, but not for long.  In March 2009 the Obama WHD rescinded 18 Bush-era Opinion Letters, including the one on coaches.  Clarity was removed, and confusion returned.

In January of 2018, the Trump DOL reinstated the 18 rescinded opinion letters, including the coaching letter, now re-numbered FLSA2018-6.  Thankfully, no changes were made to the letter.  Once again, schools have clear guidance on how to pay their coaches. 

This ‘new’ opinion letter establishes that coaching is a form of teaching, and thus an exempt position under the FLSA’s Professional exemption.  It states: “Thus, coaches whose primary duty is teaching qualify for the exemption whether or not they hold a teaching certificate or an academic degree.”    The letter goes on to remind readers that there is no salary test for teachers under the FLSA’s Professional exemption.  Schools are free to negotiate coaches’ pay as they see fit, without a minimum FLSA requirement.

The letter clearly addressees the exempt status and pay of employees who work strictly as coaches, as well as teachers who also coach.   However, it is common for non-exempt school staff to also coach, and the letter addresses that situation thusly: “Coaches whose primary duties are not related to teaching—for example, performing general clerical or administrative tasks for the school unrelated to teaching, including the recruitment of students to play sports, or performing manual labor—do not qualify for the teacher exemption.”

The Opinion Letter comports with the FLSA’s regulatory requirement that to be exempt, an employee’s ‘primary duty’ must be exempt work.  An employee such as a teacher’s aide, custodian or clerical worker who spends 40 or more hours per week in non-exempt work, will not qualify for the Professional exemption merely by the addition of coaching duties, because their primary duty will remain the non-exempt work of their full-time position.  Schools that have this situation are required to treat all work as non-exempt, meaning that the coaches must record their work time, and receive FLSA minimum wage and overtime pay, based on the combined total of all hours worked in the coaching and non-coaching jobs.

WHD issued related guidance on April 12, 2018 in Fact Sheet #17S, covering exemptions for common positions in higher education, including coaches.  The Fact Sheet is in sync with the Opinion Letter, and says this about coaches in higher education:

“Athletic coaches employed by higher education institutions may qualify for the teacher exemption.  After all, teaching may include instructing student-athletes in how to perform their sport.  But a coach will not qualify for the exemption if his or her primary duties are recruiting students to play sports or visiting high schools and athletic camps to conduct student interviews.  The amount of time the coach spends instructing student-athletes in a team sport is relevant, but not the exclusive factor, in determining the coach’s exempt status.”

Over the past 15 years, according to DOL-reported statistics, approximately one-third of all complaints filed by school employees with the WHD have involved non-exempt workers seeking to recover unpaid minimum wage and overtime from their districts for working extra hours as sponsors or coaches in various school activities.  Schools who employ coaches who also work full-time in non-exempt capacities should consider consulting an expert in wage and hour law to determine the proper way to pay these workers in order to minimize the chances of a WHD investigation, or a private lawsuit.

The material in this blog is not intended, nor should it be construed or relied upon, as legal advice. Please consult with an attorney if specific legal information is needed. 

- Mike Staebell


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