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Exempt vs Non-exempt: Does My Status Change if I'm Handing Out Name Tags?

Dear Evil HR Lady,
I am a salaried employee, and exempt from overtime pay. This makes sense for my position under the "computer employee" exemption.
A few times a year, my company also hosts trade shows and conventions. These shows are staffed with regular office staff. I enjoy working the shows - I get to travel, I can meet and mingle with some important people in our industry, and it gives me a break from my normal day-to-day duties.
However, the hours are extremely long. We're talking about a week's worth of 12 - 15 hour days, including the weekends. In order to minimize the amount of overtime they need to pay, the company staffs these events with as many exempt employees as possible. My question is this: am I still exempt from overtime pay when I'm performing duties that have nothing to do with my normal job function?
When I'm working at the trade shows, I'm not creating anything, or programming anything, or exercising any judgment or discretion. I am just a grunt sitting behind a desk helping people check in, or collecting tickets at the door so attendees can get into lunch or a nightly networking reception. Is this kosher? If it's not, what can I do about it? This has been the policy at my company for as long as I can remember. Would they owe back overtime pay to any salaried employee who worked at one of these conventions over the years?
This is an excellent question. The exempt vs non-exempt question is always in people's minds. From an ego point of view, people like to be exempt because it sounds higher level than non-exempt. From a pay perspective, if you ever work more than 40 hours a week, non-exempt is better. Overtime can really add up.

You are not disputing your status as exempt most of the year, just during the two-three weeks a year. As I said, it's a good question. If you are, after all, doing work that wouldn't qualify you for an exemption from the Fair Labor Standards Act (which is what being exempt means), you would think you would be non-exempt.

And you would be right, except when you are wrong, which you are, in this case.

Now, keeping in mind that I know nothing about your day to day job, have not read a job description, and am not a labor and employment lawyer, I'd have to side with the company on this one.

I have yet to meet an exempt employee who didn't, at least some of the time, have to do work which--if it were your only responsibility--would make you non-exempt.

For instance, I used to work for a company with about 30,000 US employees. My department was responsible for handling raises and bonuses. That meant about 4 times a year we printed up pieces of paper with new salaries, or bonus amounts, or descriptions of what their bonus could be if only they could out-perform their co-workers and stuffed them into envelopes. Did I mention 30,000 employees? Did I also mention we did this by hand? Yes, it really stunk and it was tedious, had no room for judgment or discretion. There was a ton of that kind of stuff that happened first, so that we could print up the pieces of paper, but when it came down to stuffing the envelopes, it was as brainless as you might think.

Sometimes the stuffing room would contain everyone from temp and intern to VP. Honest to goodness. But, none of us lost our exempt status because we were doing "non-exempt" work. Now, if our responsibilities changed so that most of our time was spent stuffing envelopes then our statuses would change.

Because most of the time you are doing computer programming that is rightly classified as exempt, checking people in a couple of times a year won't change your status.

And think of it this way: When you are the person handing out the badges you get to meet everyone. And when it's a trade show, that means that some of these people are people you want to network with and possibly work for some day. If you're just back in the office, sitting in your cube, you'll miss those opportunities.

Photo by Richard Moross, Flickr cc 2.0
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