Answer from Aimee, GPHR, SHRM-SCP:
Yes, a part-time employee may be classified as exempt. The minimum salary and duties requirements must still be met, of course. And the minimum salary cannot be prorated when an exempt employee works part-time. In other words, the federal requirement to pay $684 per week (or the higher state minimum salary) will apply even if the person is working less than full time.
That said, “part-time” and “exempt” usually don’t go well together. The point of classifying an employee as exempt—from the employer’s perspective—is that the employee can be paid a set salary and asked to work extra hours without being entitled to overtime pay. But employees who are hired into part-time roles often seek them because they have other obligations (or even other jobs). They generally expect to work an exact number of hours each week or at least keep to part-time hours.
While the nature of exempt status is that employees can be expected to work the number of hours necessary to get the job done, if the job is actually a full-time job, it should be classified as such. If you start to lean heavily on your ability to require an exempt part-time employee to work extra hours without extra pay, potentially upending other plans, morale is likely to suffer. However, you can mitigate this by being clear upfront about what kind of commitment may be required and by advertising and describing the job accurately. Additionally, referring to a part-time exempt employee as 50% FTE (rather than telling them they’ll be working 20 hours weekly) can help establish an expectation that salary isn’t linked to an exact number of hours.
If a part-time employee’s hours will fluctuate dramatically, you should carefully consider whether “exempt” is the right classification. If you reclassify an employee as nonexempt, they must be paid overtime where applicable.
Aimee is a recognized leader in the field of Human Resources. Previously, she held HR leadership roles for an international humanitarian relief and development organization, and worked as an HR consultant to small and mid-sized companies. She has provided consultative services to a wide range of industries including aerospace, professional sports (NBA), technology, luxury retail, service industry, medical, engineering, environmental and social service non-profits. Aimee was previously the Global Director for the Board of Directors of the local chapter of the Society for Human Resource Management. She’s also a coach and professional futurist.