Coyle Browne Law


What is an Exempt vs. Non-Exempt Employee in California?

Understanding the differences between employment classifications is essential for both employers and employees. In California, as in other states, there are two primary categories under which workers fall: exempt and non-exempt.

These designations impact critical aspects of employment, most notably overtime pay, but also wage rates and benefits. Knowing if you’ve been misclassified is crucial to ensure you get the compensation you’re entitled to.

Determining Exempt vs. Non-Exempt 

The classification between exempt and non-exempt employees can be tricky to ascertain but there are a few guiding principles that dictate these categories.


Exempt employees usually hold salaried white-collar positions which aren’t subject to specific wage and hour protections like overtime pay and minimum wage. These typically include those in executive, administrative, or other professional roles.

Not ALL White-Collar Employees Are Exempt

However, not all employees working in the ‘white-collar’ sector automatically qualify as exempt. In order for workers to legitimately fall under this category, they must fulfill three fundamental conditions:

Executive, Administrative, or Professional Duties

Their principal responsibilities should manage executive, administrative, or professional tasks. This usually means that at least half of their working time should be dedicated to general business operations.

Independent Discretion at work 

The role in question should typically require using considerable independent judgment and discretion while operationally carrying out their essential job duties.

Salary Requirements

Pay also tends to be an essential determining factor when deciding the exemption status of jobs. In California, from 2023 onwards, employees are deemed exempt only if they earn at least $1,240 per week or $64,480 annually. 

Non-Exempt Employees

Non-exempt California are shielded by certain labor laws that aim to preserve worker rights and protect fair compensation.

Minimum Wage Protections

Regardless of their job role or hours worked, non-exempt employees must be paid at least the state or county’s minimum wage for all working hours. This extends to cases where local municipalities have enacted higher rates. If you’ve been in a situation where your employer is not paying your wages, contact our unpaid wages lawyers in San Diego today.

Entitled to Overtime

Non-exempt employees are entitled to overtime pay. This generally means when working in excess of eight hours per day or forty hours per week.

Right to Breaks

California labor law also guarantees rest and meal breaks for non-exempt employees. Workers are entitled to take a 10-minute break every four hours worked and should also be able to take uninterrupted meal breaks during all shifts lasting over five hours.

What To Do If You’re Misclassified

If you are classified as exempt when that might not apply, there are certain steps you can take:

Address it with Human Resources

If you’ve been improperly classified as exempt and are missing out on protections and benefits, you can engage in a conversation around this issue with the HR department if you feel comfortable doing so. They should be properly versed in explaining your classification and can help you correct any issues.

File a Wage Claim

If the conversation with your HR department doesn’t remedy the situation, another option is to file a wage claim with your state’s labor department. In California that means contacting the Labor Commissioner’s Office, illustrating what you believe may be misclassification leading to incorrect wages, like overtime.

File a Lawsuit

In scenarios where multiple employees have been impacted or your employer refuses to make the situation right, you can file a lawsuit. An experienced San Diego employment law attorney by your side who specializes in wage and hour class action lawsuits could be particularly beneficial.

If you need help with any type of employment claim, we’re here for you. Contact us today to schedule a free consultation.

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