State Wage and Hour Laws Can Trump the FLSA

Today’s FLSA Question: I recently read a story on your website about Rhode Island enacting a new law requiring firefighters be paid overtime after working only 42 hours per week. But the FLSA only mandates overtime pay after firefighters work 53 hours per week. Doesn’t federal law (FLSA) trump (or pre-empt) state law?

Answer: Good question. You are not alone in posing this question. I received two nearly identical questions this past week. As a general rule, you are correct. Federal law typically pre-empts (or trumps) state law. However, the FLSA is a unique federal statute in that it sets the bare minimum for this country’s wage and hour requirements. There is nothing within the FLSA that prevents individual states from mandating more enhanced wage and hour benefits for employees within that particular state. In fact, under some rare circumstances local governments have even passed ordinances designed at enhancing minimum wages for workers within their individual communities.

For example, the FLSA mandates a federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. However, according to the Economic Policy Institute thirty states have enacted minimum wages that are higher than the federal minimum. Massachusetts has established a minimum wage of $12 per hour. This is significantly higher than the federal minimum. Employers in MA must make sure they are compliant with both the federal and state minimum wage laws.

These types of wage and hour enhancements are not limited to just the minimum wage. Some states have enacted laws that require overtime paid to an employee after they work more than a certain number of hours in a single day. The FLSA does not contain such a requirement. Generally speaking, the FLSA only requires overtime eligible workers receive overtime after working forty hours in a seven-day workweek. In theory, an employer could require an employee work forty consecutive hours without any overtime [or even a break for that matter]!

The state of California also provides a good example of state legislation aimed at providing workers enhanced wage and hour benefits above the federal minimum. The California (CA) Labor Code requires employers pay overtime to workers after they work more than eight hours in a single day. The CA law also requires double-time for all hours worked over twelve in a single day. As you can imagine there are numerous exemptions and exceptions to these general requirements, especially for fire and EMS workers. However, these rules provide a good example of how state wage and hour laws can trump federal counterparts.     

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