The “Assistant Manager” scam
If you’ve spent any time working in retail, you’re probably familiar with this particular con:
For four years beginning in 2014, Tiffany Palliser worked at Panera Bread in South Florida, making salads and operating the register for shifts that began at 5 a.m. and often ran late into the afternoon.
Ms. Palliser estimates that she worked at least 50 hours a week on average. But she says she did not receive overtime pay.
The reason? Panera officially considered her a manager and paid her an annual salary rather than on an hourly basis. Ms. Palliser said she was often told that “this is what you signed up for” by becoming an assistant manager.
Federal law requires employers to pay time-and-a-half overtime to hourly workers after 40 hours, and to most salaried workers whose salary is below a certain amount, currently about $35,500 a year. Companies need not pay overtime to salaried employees who make above that amount if they are bona fide managers.
Many employers say managers who earn relatively modest salaries have genuine responsibility and opportunities to advance. The National Retail Federation, a trade group, has written that such management positions are “key steps on the ladder of professional success, especially for many individuals who do not have college degrees.”
But according to a recent paper by three academics, Lauren Cohen, Umit Gurun and N. Bugra Ozel, many companies provide salaries just above the federal cutoff to frontline workers and mislabel them as managers to deny them overtime.
Because the legal definition of a manager is vague and little known — the employee’s “primary” job must be management, and the employee must have real authority — the mislabeled managers find it hard to push back, even if they mostly do grunt work.
The paper found that from 2010 to 2018, manager titles in a large database of job postings were nearly five times as common among workers who were at the federal salary cutoff for mandatory overtime or just above it as they were among workers just below the cutoff.
Obviously, legislation to protect workers is off the table as long as Republicans control any veto point and enormously difficult otherwise. But I think the best remedy here would be to substantially increase the minimum salary necessary to deny workers overtime pay rather than trying to tinker with definitions of management that are likely to be mostly unenforceable no matter what.