Department of Labor (Finally) Provides Guidance on Non-Staff Athletic Coaches

Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) reissued an opinion letter from January 15, 2009 that it had previously withdrawn. The reissued opinion letter provides guidance about how school districts should classify and compensate community members who serve as athletic coaches. The DOL de­termined that certain athletic coaches who are not otherwise employed by the school district meet the “teacher exemption” under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).

By meeting the “teacher exemption,” those coaches are exempt from the FLSA’s overtime and minimum wage requirements. This means that a school district may pay those coaches a stipend or hourly rate without regard to potential liability for minimum wage or overtime obligations associated with the actual hours the coaches work. Despite this favorable guidance, school officials must be aware that the DOL’s reissued opinion is limited in scope and does not apply to every coach.

The opinion letter only applies to coaches who spend most of their time instructing student athletes in the rules and fundamentals of their respective sports as opposed to performing general clerical or administrative tasks. Therefore, simply because an em­ployee is called a “coach” does not mean that the employee will be considered exempt. Rather, the DOL will inquire whether the “coach” spends most of his or her time instructing student athletes in the rules and fundamentals of the pertinent sport.

Also, the opinion letter only applies to coaches who are not employed in any other capacity by the district. This fact is critical, as a coach who is also em­ployed by the district as a non-exempt employee (e.g., custodian, paraprofessional, or bus driver) would not meet the FLSA’s teacher exemption. In that instance, a district could be obligated to pay the employee wages that correspond with overtime and minimum wage obligations for all the hours the employee worked, including hours as a coach. Non-exempt employees may volunteer to be coaches, but their status as volun­teers will be lost if they receive more than a nominal fee in return for volunteering. Alternatively, an indi­vidual otherwise employed by a school district as an exempt employee (e.g., teachers and some administra­tors) also may volunteer to coach athletics and receive a stipend without triggering the FLSA’s obligation to pay overtime.

The DOL’s opinion letter is extremely helpful to districts that utilize non-employee community mem­bers to serve as athletic coaches. For coaches that qualify for the teacher exemption, a district may set the level of compensation for the coach without regard to the FLSA’s overtime and minimum wage require­ments and need not record the hours worked by the coaches. If you have any questions about your dis­trict’s employment of and compensation for coaches, please contact a Thrun Law Firm employment attorney.