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Laboring Over Fair Labor

Athletics departments across the country are readying for new pay standards

When the calendar flips to December this year, a subtle yet significant change will sweep through college sports.

A key modification to the Fair Labor Standards Act – a federal law that establishes minimum wage and overtime pay standards – will go into effect Dec. 1. The annual salary threshold for most employees to be exempt from hourly and overtime pay will jump from $23,660 to $47,476. As of that date, employees making less than $47,476 must be paid time-and-a-half for the hours they work in excess of 40 in a given week. The threshold, which hadn’t been altered since 2004, will be updated every three years. 

While the change is designed to ensure workers receive fair compensation, it will reshape budgets at colleges and universities across the country. Their athletics departments are no exception. A slew of athletics staff at schools large and small will see their hours, job duties and pay shift to account for the change.

There are, however, a few exemptions. Teachers’ salaries do not have to meet the new threshold in order to be exempt from overtime pay. And coaches can qualify as teachers, provided they spend the majority of their time “teaching, tutoring, instructing or lecturing in the activity of imparting knowledge.” If skill instruction is not a coach’s primary duty – perhaps the coach spends the majority of time on recruiting, administrative work or manual labor like groundskeeping on campus – the coach would not be considered a teacher and would have to be paid overtime or receive a salary bump to $47,476 or more. For many coaches, though, the teaching exception will apply, a potential boon for schools hoping to keep pay relatively low for young assistant coaches who are honing their skills.  

“It’s not skirting the law. It’s in alignment with the law. Our coaches are educators,” says Matt Hill, University of Northwestern-St. Paul vice president for student life and athletics. “Their skill set may happen to be physical, and their laboratory may happen to be a field. But it’s still the same thing.”

College athletics departments are preparing to account for the new standard in a litany of ways. A few case studies:


Western Carolina University

8,787 undergraduates enrolled
78 athletics department staff
17 athletics employees affected by rule change

Estimated athletics budget impact: $125,000-$250,000 (between 3.2 and 6.4 percent of annual budget for personnel and benefits).

How they’re paying for it: Athletics Director Randy Eaton says his department will be able to apply the teaching exemption to many coaches, but it still will have to make changes to accommodate rising expenses. The university is not subsidizing the new costs, so the department will have to fund increases to salaries and overtime pay. To do so, Eaton is considering shifting the workweek to Tuesday-Saturday for home football games to limit overtime. Expenses for printed materials like game programs also may be cut.

Gauging the impact: “Communication will be key for all senior administrators in sharing what this will mean to each and every affected employee. ... The world of intercollegiate athletics, certainly outside of the power five conferences, will be forever shaped by these new standards.”

Randy Eaton, athletics director



Thomas More College

1,497 undergraduates enrolled
23 athletics department staff
3 athletics employees affected by rule change

Estimated athletics budget impact: $20,000 (before extra overtime pay is taken into account).

How they’re paying for it: To circumvent rising costs that the school would not have been able to absorb, Thomas More’s athletic trainers are now employed by a local hospital. The college also invested in timekeeping software and is training staff on the nuances of shifting from a salary to hourly pay, such as when to clock in and out for different activities throughout the day. 

Gauging the impact: “I’m sad that we’re not going to be able to take those chances anymore. We’re not going to be able to take the young people who are willing to put the time in to establish themselves, build up their resume. ... If I’m going to have to pay $47,000, which at a school like ours is a big-time salary, then I’m going to hire somebody who has experience.”

– David Armstrong, president



University of Northwestern-St. Paul

3,222 undergraduates enrolled
55 athletics department staff 
0 athletics employees affected by rule change

Estimated athletics budget impact: $0.

How they’re paying for it: While the teaching exemption has helped account for coaches whose salaries fall below the new threshold, other athletics staff at the school already had seen their pay jump. Matt Hill, vice president for student life and athletics, began pushing salaries higher three years ago to account for the cost of living in the Twin Cities. The school didn’t have to raise tuition or fees to fund the increases. It focused on generating more money from sponsorships and has added five sports in recent years, helping boost enrollment. 

Gauging the impact: “It’s good for the employees that we’re thinking about their pay. On the flip side, it is expensive for some institutions. I’m not sure how some, especially if they have to go the hourly route with some staff, are going to afford it.”

– Matt Hill, vice president for student life and athletics



East Tennessee State University

11,392 undergraduates enrolled
32 athletics department staff (not including coaches)
12 athletics employees affected by rule change

Estimated athletics budget impact: $100,000.

How they’re paying for it: Athletics Director Richard Sander says his department plans to take a litany of measures to curtail costs. The school won’t take sports information directors, ticket staff and academic support staff to road games. Additionally, athletic trainers will cut back on practices attended, and the ticket office’s operating hours will be cut. Sander also plans to hire part-time staff at an hourly rate for game management roles and will reduce the amount of time staff spend at work on game days.

Gauging the impact: “Departments need to understand the value of time. In the future, you need to look at every hour as a financial cost. ... Time now becomes extremely valuable, so you cannot waste time and have individuals at the workplace not getting things done every minute.”

– Richard Sander, athletics director