On July 26, 2018, the California Supreme Court issued its long-awaited opinion in Troester v. Starbucks Corporation, ostensibly clarifying the application of the widely adopted de minimis doctrine to California’s wage-hour laws. But while the Court rejected the application of the de minimis rule under the facts presented to it, the Court did not reject the doctrine outright. Instead, it left many questions unanswered.

And even while it rejected the application of the rule under the facts presented, it did not address a much larger question – whether the highly individualized issues regarding small increments of time allegedly worked “off the clock” could justify certification of a class on those claims.

For more than 70 years, federal courts have regularly applied the de minimis doctrine in certain “circumstances to excuse the payment of wages for small amounts of otherwise compensable time upon a showing that the bits of time are administratively difficult to record.” Those courts have concluded that as much as 15 minutes per day could be considered de minimis and, therefore, noncompensable.

In Troester, the California Supreme Court concluded that most of California’s wage and hour laws have not in fact adopted the de minimis doctrine found in the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”). However, the Court did not go so far as to reject the application in all instances. Indeed, the Court specifically declined to “decide whether there are circumstances where compensable time is so minute or irregular that it is unreasonable to expect the time to be recorded.” (Emphasis added.)

The key words in that sentence appear to be “minute” and “irregular.”

The Court declined to do so “given the wide range of scenarios in which this issue arises,” proffering what appear to be examples where the de minimis rule could apply – e.g., “paperwork involving a minute or less of an employee’s time” or “an employee reading an e-mail notification of a shift change during off-work hours.”

Under the facts presented to it, where the employer allegedly required employees to “work ‘off the clock’ several minutes per shift,” the Court found that the relevant statute and regulations did not permit application of the de minimis rule.

Specifically, it apparently was undisputed that the plaintiff “had various duties related to closing the store after he clocked out, and the parties [had] agree[d] for purposes of [the California Supreme Court] resolving the issue . . . that the time spent on these duties is compensable.” It also apparently was undisputed that these tasks took the plaintiff as few as 4 minutes and as much as 10 minutes each shift that he worked. Given those specific facts, the Court found that the de minimis rule would not be applicable, holding that, under California law generally, an “employer that requires its employees to work minutes off the clock on a regular basis or as a regular feature of the job may not evade the obligation to compensate the employee for that time by invoking the de minimis doctrine.” (Emphasis added.)

Consistent with prior language in the opinion, the key words in that conclusion appear to be “minutes” and “regular.”

In other words, while significant, regular time would not be de minimis, insignificant and irregular time could be.

And how that issue could be addressed on a classwide basis seems questionable, at best, given that the very nature of “off the clock” work is that there are no records of it. Individualized inquiries apparently would need to be conducted person-by-person, day-by-day, to determine if an individual in fact worked “minutes” off-the-clock on a “regular” basis.

Not unimportantly, in addition to the Court’s majority opinion, Justices Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar and Leondra Kruger wrote separate concurring opinions, each offering some additional support for employers.

Justice Cuéllar noted that while the Court’s majority opinion “protects workers from being denied compensation for minutes they regularly spend on work-related tasks,” it “does not consign employers or their workers to measure every last morsel of employees’ time.”

Justice Kruger also offered some examples where she opined that the de minimis rule could apply:

  • An employer requires workers to turn on their computers and log in to an application in order to start their shifts. Ordinarily this process takes employees no more than a minute (and often far less, depending on the employee’s typing speed), but on rare and unpredictable occasions a software glitch delays workers’ log-ins for as long as two to three minutes.
  • An employer ordinarily distributes work schedules and schedule changes during working hours at the place of employment. But occasionally employees are notified of schedule changes by e-mail or text message during their off hours and are expected to read and acknowledge the messages.
  • After their shifts have ended, employees in a retail store sometimes remain in the store for several minutes waiting for transportation. On occasion, a customer will ask a waiting employee a question, not realizing the employee is off duty. The employee – with the employer’s knowledge – spends a minute or two helping the customer.

Justice Kruger wrote that “a requirement that the employer accurately account for every second spent on work tasks may well be impractical and unreasonable” in the situations above.

Following Troester, entities doing business in California will want to review their practices and their timekeeping systems.

And while Troester certainly suggests that employers in California will face an increased number of class actions alleging that certain insignificant amounts of time should have been compensated, plaintiffs’ difficulty in actually getting classes certified on such claims appears relatively unchanged.

In most wage and hour cases, each workweek gives rise to a separate claim, at least for statute of limitations purposes. Thus, an employee seeking payment for alleged off-the-clock work or an independent contractor claiming misclassification and entitlement to overtime ordinarily may seek back wages and related recovery only for work performed within a set amount of time—usually two to six years preceding the filing of the complaint, depending on the jurisdiction—preceding the filing of the complaint. But what happens to the statute of limitations when a plaintiff tries to bring a class action under state law, the court denies class certification, and a new plaintiff seeks to bring a subsequent class action presenting the same claims?

On June 11, 2018, the Supreme Court provided the answer in China Agritech, Inc. v. Resh. In short, the Court held that although a class action suspends the running of the limitations period for individual potential class members who subsequently seek to join a suit or to file their own individual case, the class action does not permit the filing of subsequent time-barred class actions.

American Pipe Tolling

The Supreme Court first addressed the interplay of class actions and statutes of limitations more than four decades ago. In American Pipe & Construction Co. v. Utah, the Court concluded that a timely-filed complaint seeking relief on behalf of a class under Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure suspends the running of the statute of limitations for potential class members, and that, upon the denial of class certification, members of the unsuccessful class may intervene in the original case without erosion of their claims to the statute of limitations. 414 U.S. 538, 544, 552-53 (1974).

Nine years later, the Court concluded that so-called American Pipe tolling applies not only when members of the pleaded class intervene in the original suit, but also when they file their own individual cases. Crown, Cork & Seal Co. v. Parker, 462 U.S. 345, 350, 353-54 (1983). An open question following American Pipe and Crown, Cork is whether these tolling principles also apply to subsequent class actions.

The Supreme Court’s Ruling

In China Agritech, a company’s stock price dropped following public disclosure of allegedly fraudulent conduct by the company. Claims accrued on February 3, 2011, and on February 11, 2011, a plaintiff filed a putative class action under the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, which provides for a two-year statute of limitations. The court denied class certification in May of 2012, and the original case settled in September 2012, leading to dismissal.

The following month, the same counsel filed a second putative class action against the company alleging the same claims on behalf of a new named plaintiff. The court again denied class certification, leading to another settlement and dismissal.

On June 30, 2014—more than two years after the February 3, 2011 accrual of the claims—yet another plaintiff, represented by new counsel, commenced a third putative class action, which made its way to the Supreme Court. The district court dismissed the complaint as untimely, holding that the first two class complaints did not toll the time to bring further class claims. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed.

The Supreme Court granted certiorari to resolve a three-way split among the federal appellate courts on the tolling issue. The Court framed the question presented as follows: “Upon denial of class certification, may a putative class member, in lieu of promptly joining an existing suit or promptly filing an individual action, commence a class action anew beyond the time allowed by the applicable statute of limitations?” (Slip Op. at 2.) Justice Ginsburg’s answer, in a decision joined by seven other justices, was that “American Pipe does not permit the maintenance of a follow-on class action past expiration of the statute of limitations.” (Id.)

The Court noted that the reason for American Pipe tolling for individual claims is that “economy of litigation favors delaying those claims until after a class-certification denial. If class certification is granted, the claims will proceed as a class and there would be no need for the assertion of any claim individually.” (Slip Op. at 6.) If a court denies class certification, “only then would it be necessary to pursue claims individually.” (Id.)

But when a case involves class claims, “efficiency favors early assertion of competing class representative claims. If class treatment is appropriate, and all would-be representatives have come forward, the district court can select the best plaintiff with knowledge of the full array of potential class representatives and class counsel.” (Slip Op. at 7.) In cases in which “the class mechanism is not a viable option for the claims, the decision denying certification will be made at the outset of the case, litigated once for all would-be class representatives.” (Id.)

The Court cautioned that the plaintiffs’ “proposed reading would allow the statute of limitations to be extended time and again; as each class is denied certification, a new named plaintiff could file a class complaint that resuscitates the litigation.” (Slip Op. at 10.) The Court observed that although “[t]he Federal Rules [of Civil Procedure] provide a range of options to aid courts” in managing complex litigation, “[w]hat the Rules do not offer is a reason to permit plaintiffs to exhume failed class actions by filing new, untimely class actions.” (Id. at 14-15.)

The Concurrence

Concurring in the judgment only, Justice Sotomayor took issue with the Court’s holding as applied to cases outside the securities context. She addressed several differences between the procedures required by the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act, including publication of notice of the filing of a putative securities class action, designed to encourage active participation early in the case by other potential lead plaintiffs and counsel, not required for other class actions under Rule 23. (Concurrence at 2-4.) Justice Sotomayor agreed with the denial of tolling in the case before the Court, but she would have limited the ruling to cases subject to these additional procedural requirements and would not have issued a decision applicable to all Rule 23 cases. (Id. at 1, 7.)

What the Decision Means for Employers

In light of China Agritech, employers should expect courts to reject the use of American Pipe tolling to allow plaintiffs in wage and hour putative class actions to seek relief for workweeks that are outside the applicable limitations period. Courts will likely continue to allow individual claims for those otherwise time-barred workweeks when supported by American Pipe tolling. In addition, courts may continue to allow subsequent class actions by members of previously denied classes, but without the benefit of tolling. As always, employers faced with a wage and hour putative class action should carefully consider all available defenses, including the statute of limitations as to individual and class claims.

Tips Do Not Count Towards the Minimum Wage Unless a Worker Qualified as a “Tipped Employe"It is a common practice for employers to provide their employees with rest breaks during the work day.  (And in some states, like California, it is required by state law.) But under what circumstances is an employer required to pay its employees for break time?

In U.S. Department of Labor v. American Future Systems Inc. et al., the Third Circuit Court of Appeals was asked to decide whether the Fair Labor Standards Act requires employers to compensate employees for breaks of 20 minutes or less during which they are free from performing any work.

The employer in that case produced business publications that were sold over the telephone by sales representatives.  The sales representatives could log off of their computers and take breaks whenever they chose and for any length of time.  They were free to leave the premises.   However, if the employees were logged off their computers for more than 90 seconds, they were not paid for the break time.

The Department of Labor (“DOL”) filed suit against the company.  The DOL relied on 29 C.F.R. § 785.18, which states:

Rest.

Rest periods of short duration, running from 5 minutes to about 20 minutes, are common in industry. They promote the efficiency of the employee and are customarily paid for as working time. They must be counted as hours worked…

The District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania granted partial summary judgment to the DOL, concluding that section 785.18 created a “bright-line rule” and the company violated the FLSA by failing to pay its employees for rest breaks of twenty minutes or less.  The company appealed to the Third Circuit.

The company argued that the DOL was attempting to enforce the wrong regulation, and instead the court should apply 29 C.F.R. § 785.16 to its break policy.  That regulation states:

Off duty.

Periods during which an employee is completely relieved from duty and which are long enough to enable him to use the time effectively for his own purposes are not hours worked.  He is not completely relieved from duty and cannot use the time effectively for his own purposes unless he is definitely told in advance that he may leave the job and that he will not have to commence work until a definitely specified hour has arrived.  Whether the time is long enough to enable him to use the time effectively for his own purposes depends upon all of the facts and circumstances of the case.

The company contended that the “off duty” regulation should apply.  The company pointed out that its policy was completely flexible, allowed employees to take as many breaks as they wanted for as long as they wanted, allowed them to be completely relieved of all duties and created no obligation to return to work.  Therefore, the company argued that under the facts and circumstances of the case, even breaks of less than 20 minutes were not compensable.

The Third Circuit disagreed.  It stated that the “off duty” regulation provides a general rule regarding the compensability of hours worked, but section 785.18 is a more specific regulation that carves out an exception to the general rule.  The Third Circuit held that section 785.18 establishes a bright-line rule that employers must pay their employees for any rest breaks of 20 minutes or less.

To date, it does not appear that any other Circuit Court has weighed in on this issue.  That another Circuit might reach a different conclusion is certainly possible.  And it is also possible that the Supreme Court may have the final word on this issue.

In many industries, sales are subject to ebbs and flows.  Sometimes the fish are biting; sometimes they aren’t.

A common device that employers with commissioned salespeople use to take the edge off of the slow weeks and to ensure compliance with minimum wage and overtime laws is the recoverable draw.  Under such a system, an employee who earns below a certain amount in commissions for a given period of time, often a week, receives an advance of as-yet unearned commissions to bring the employee’s earnings for the period up to a specified level.  Then in the next period, the employees’ commissions pay off the draw balance before the employee receives further payouts of commissions.  Occasionally, employees challenge these recoverable draw pay systems.

In Stein v. hhgregg, Inc., the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit considered one such draw system.  The employer, a retail seller of appliances, furniture, and electronics at more than 220 stores nationwide, paid its salespeople entirely in commissions.  In weeks where an employee worked 40 or fewer hours and did not earn commissions sufficient to cover minimum wage for the week, the employee would receive a draw against future commissions sufficient to bring the employee’s earnings for the week up to minimum wage.  In weeks where the employee worked more than 40 hours, and did not earn sufficient commissions to cover one and a half times the minimum wage, the employee would receive a draw against future commissions sufficient to bring the employee’s earnings for the week up to one and a half times the minimum wage.  The purpose of this pay structure was, among other things, to achieve compliance with the overtime exemption in section 7(i) of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) for certain commissioned employees of a retail or service establishment.  The company’s policy also provided that upon termination of employment, an employee will immediately pay the company any unpaid draw balance.

Two employees of a store in Ohio brought a putative nationwide collective action under the FLSA, as well as a putative state law class action asserting unjust enrichment with respect to the company’s more than twenty-five locations in Ohio.  They alleged failure to pay the minimum wage or overtime based on the theory that offsetting draw payments against future commissions amounted to an improper kick-back of wages to the employer.  They also claimed that the employer did not pay for certain non-sales activities and encouraged employees to work off the clock.  The complaint did not specifically allege that the two named plaintiffs worked off the clock or that the one plaintiff who was a former employee had to repay a draw balance when his employment ended.  The district court granted the company’s motion to dismiss, concluding that there was no FLSA violation and declining to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the state-law claims.

On appeal, after reviewing extensive interpretive guidance from the U.S. Department of Labor, the Sixth Circuit rejected the plaintiffs’ central theory that a recoverable draw amounts to an impermissible wage kick-back.  To the court, the key consideration is that under the pay system at issue, “deductions will be made from wages not delivered, that is, from future earned commissions that have not yet been paid.”  Because the company does not recover wages already “delivered to the employee,” the court “h[e]ld that this practice does not violate the ‘free and clear’ regulation.  See 29 C.F.R. § 531.35 (emphasis added).”  (Op. at 9-10.)

The divided panel reversed, however, in certain other respects.

First, the court determined that the FLSA section 7(i) overtime exemption does not apply because although the company’s pay plan provides for a minimum rate equal to one and one half times the minimum wage for any week where an employee works more than 40 hours, the exemption technically requires, among other things, a rate that is more than one and a half times the minimum wage.  (Note: federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, and 1.5 times that rate is $10.875 per hour.  Strictly speaking, a wage of $10.875 does not satisfy this aspect of the exemption, whereas $10.88 per hour does.  Perhaps on remand it will turn out that the company actually paid $10.88 per hour rather than $10.875, as it would be very unusual for an employer to use a pay rate that does not round up to the nearest cent.)

Second, the panel majority held that the company’s policy of requiring repayment of a draw balance upon termination of employment violated the FLSA as an improper kick-back.  This part of the decision is interesting because the majority parted ways with the dissenting judge and the district court over the issue of policy versus practice.  The complaint did not suggest that either named plaintiff actually paid back any draw balance, and at oral argument it became clear that the company never enforced that policy and, in fact, had eliminated the repayment policy during the litigation.  The dissenting judge, like the district court before him, believed that because the company had never applied the policy to the named plaintiffs, the policy would not support a claim for relief.  The majority, however, took a more expansive approach to the matter.  “Incurring a debt, or even believing that one has incurred a debt, has far-reaching practical implications for individuals.  It could affect the way an individual saves money or applies for loans.  An individual might feel obligated to report that debt when filling out job applications, credit applications, court documents, or other financial records that require self-reporting of existing liabilities.”  (Op. at 15.)  In short, the court arguably opened the door to allowing plaintiffs to bring FLSA claims even where they have suffered no injury cognizable under the FLSA, so long as the policy they challenge could potentially cause them other types of consequential damages beyond those covered by the FLSA.  This aspect of the ruling appears to be a first of its kind in FLSA jurisprudence.

Third, the panel majority concluded that the plaintiffs adequately alleged minimum wage and overtime violations based on the assertions regarding the company’s knowledge and encouragement of working off the clock.  Although the dissent pointed out that the complaint contained no allegation that either named plaintiff actually suffered a minimum wage or overtime violation as a result of working off the clock, the majority focused on the alleged practice, rather than its specific application to the named plaintiffs, determining that “Plaintiffs have alleged sufficient facts to support a claim that this practice violates the minimum wage and overtime requirements of the FLSA.”  (Op. at 19.)

This decision provides several lessons for employers:

  • Generally speaking, the FLSA allows for the concept of a recoverable draw against commissions.  Recovering a draw against future commissions is not automatically an impermissible wage kick-back.  (Note that there may be certain restrictions under state law, and under some conditions a recoverable draw may violate the FLSA.)
  • When relying on the FLSA section 7(i) exemption, ensure that the policy is clear that an employee will receive more than one and a half times the federal minimum wage for any workweek in which the employer will claim the exemption.
  • Closely review any policies regarding recovery of draw payments (or, indeed, any other types of payments) upon an employee’s termination.  Such policies are often subject to challenge, and they can serve as a trigger for claims by demanding a payment right at the time when a departing employee may cease to have an interest in maintaining a positive relationship with an employer.
  • Be very careful about policies or practices that may arguably encourage employees to work off the clock.  Employers should have clear written policies prohibiting employees from working off the clock, and employees and supervisors should receive periodic training on those policies.

Our colleague Nathaniel M. Glasser, a Member of the Firm at Epstein Becker Green, has a post on the Hospitality Labor and Employment Law Blog that will be of interest to many of our readers: “Fourth Circuit Decision Highlights Need for Employers to Assess Whether Training Time Should Be Compensated.”

Whether time spent in training is compensable time under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) is an issue that the courts have addressed in a variety of contexts. A new Fourth Circuit decision – Harbourt v. PPE Casino Resorts Maryland, LLC – addressed that issue in the context of pre-hire training provided to some casino workers in Maryland and concluded that the casino workers alleged sufficient facts to proceed with their claims that they should have been paid for pre-hire training. …

While Maryland Live! may still establish that the trainees, and not the casino, were the primary beneficiaries of its dealer school such that their training time is not compensable, the decision to permit the lawsuit to proceed highlights the need for employers to review their own policies and practices relating to training. Employers that have training programs that do not pay attendees for their time should review those programs closely to determine whether they are for the primary benefit of the attendees and, if not, consider either paying the attendees for their attendance or restructuring them so that they primarily benefit the attendees, not the employer.

Read the full post here.

 By Michael Kun

At virtually every point in time, we have thought of ourselves as being technologically advanced. 

Older readers of this blog will recall the first time they ever saw a calculator.  It was the size of a paperback novel, it cost more than $100, and it was spectacular.  It was unfathomable that anyone would ever design anything more advanced.  Now, you can get a calculator at the checkout stand of your local supermarket for about $2.  And you will probably raise a few eyebrows if you buy one, if only because most people have no need for calculators.  They are built right into most laptop computers, tablets and smartphones – devices that only science fiction writers could possibly have dreamed of.

As a result of all of these technological advances, many employees work in front of a computer screen, and most have tiny computers in their shirt pockets, briefcases or purses at all times. 

In other words, most employees are no more than inches away from the internet, from email and from a phone at any moment during their working days. 

And employees cannot resist the temptation of those devices.  (How long was it after the introduction of the Blackberry before the first person referred to it as a “Crackberry”?)

How often have you been at a store, only to find the sales clerk off in a corner on a personal call on his or her smartphone, or checking emails?

How many times have you walked past a co-worker’s desk as he or she hurries to change the screen so you won’t see the fantasy football standings, or the webpage for a bookstore, or a social media site, or a lengthy exchange of emails with friends?  (Full disclosure: had you walked into my office 5 minutes ago, my browser was open to www.espn.com.  Specifically, the major league baseball page.)

Some employers have tried to minimize time spent in these activities by putting up firewalls on their computers.  What has this done?  It has led to discontented employees, who have just turned to using their smartphones for such activities.

Some employers have tried to put an end to time spent on smartphones at work.   What has been the result?  More discontent from employees, who take their smartphones to the restrooms or hallway.  While I personally can only attest to what I have observed in men’s rooms, I have little doubt that women’s rooms are quite similar — people having personal telephone calls, often about exceedingly private matters, or clicking away on their smartphones, while others try to remain quiet or wait patiently to use the restroom for its intended purpose.  (I won’t comment on how downright weird it is for you to be talking to someone while you’re in the restroom other than to say that any time I get a call from someone and hear a flush in the background, everything he or she has just said immediately loses 20% of its value.  And I become much more cautious about discussing anything confidential with them when I know they are on a smartphone.)

While most employers try to minimize such personal activities, few have been able to stop it entirely.  And most understand the serious morale issues that would follow were they to try. 

Like it or not, employees are going to continue to use some work time each day on personal emails and calls, and on social media or the internet.

They’re going to continue to shop online when no one is looking.

They’re going to play fantasy football or fantasy baseball while they’re on the clock. 

They’re going to check their social media sites to see if someone has posted a new picture of a cat or shared the most recent “Which member of One Direction are you?” quiz.  (Full disclosure:  apparently, I am Harry.  Fuller disclosure: with a soon to be eight-year-old daughter, I know all of One Direction’s songs far too well and can actually name all of the band’s members – first and last names.  And feel free to quiz me on Taylor Swift or anything on the Disney Channel or Nickelodeon.)

Most employers understand all of this and, within reason, tolerate it.  It is a part of doing business in the second decade of the twenty-first century.

But it also raises a wage-hour issue that few employers think about:  if an employee has to work an additional hour of overtime because he spent an hour of the workday dealing with his fantasy football team, why should the employer have to pay for that time – and at an overtime rate, to boot?

 Why?

If you say, “Because the employee was on the employer’s premises,” try again.  An employer doesn’t have to pay an employee for all of the time he was on its premises.  If the law were otherwise, employees could grant themselves significant raises just by showing up for work a few hours early each day and reading the newspaper in the break room or taking a nap in a nice warm corner at the end of each day. 

And if you say, “The employer should have to pay because it didn’t catch the employee playing fantasy football, or shopping, or whatever,” ask yourself if that is what you really want – management standing over an employee’s shoulder all day or otherwise monitoring the employee’s ever workday activity to make sure the employee is not taking advantage.  You don’t want Big Brother in the workplace.  Don’t pretend you do. (A personal note: if you believe the reference to “Big Brother” relates to a TV show by that name, I’d encourage you to pick up the seminal George Orwell novel 1984, wherein the phrase was born.)

Practically speaking, this hypothetical – the employee who works an hour of overtime because he spent an hour on the clock playing fantasy football – speaks to the need for management to try to minimize such personal activities in a way that does not hurt employee morale.  The time spent on such entirely personal activities is costly, particularly where it leads to unnecessary overtime at overtime rates.  Every time the employee who makes $20 per hour spends an hour engaged in such personal activities, the employer has effectively paid him or her $20 for doing so.  And if they have to work an hour of overtime because they spent an hour playing fantasy football, that costs the employer an additional $30 – time-and-a-half of the employee’s regular rate. 

In other words, the employer has just paid the employee $30 to play fantasy football.  Or to shop.  Or to check Facebook. 

Where this really hits employers is in litigation.

We have written many times in this blog about the prevalence of wage-hour class actions and collective actions.  Many of them contend that employees were not paid for all of the time they worked.  Many claim that employees performed a few minutes of work before their shifts began, or after they ended.  They seek to be paid for an additional 10 minutes per day, or 15, or 20, or more.  And they seek statutory penalties.  And, always, attorney’s fees. 

But what if that same employee who contends he was shortchanged by 10 minutes of pay per day spent 30 minutes each day on social media, or shopping, or playing fantasy football, or exchanging personal emails?

Isn’t there something so clearly wrong about an employee who has been paid for engaging in personal activities turning around and seeking additional compensation under such circumstances?

Hasn’t that employee already been overpaid

Having had the pleasure of representing a great many companies in the defense of wage-hour class actions, I am always pleasantly surprised to see that most employers take a very realistic approach to the workplace, that they understand that employees probably spend some time engaging in these activities.

And I am often unpleasantly surprised to see how much time the people who sue spend in such activities, and how they believe it is their right to do so and to be paid for it – and to seek more money on top of it.

The employee who made thousands of personal telephone calls while on the clock still thinks she is entitled to more pay for a few minutes she claims she worked at the end of her shift.

The employee who regularly napped while being paid still thinks he should be paid more.

The employee who has his ugly fantasy football championship trophy on his desk forgets that his employer not only paid him for much of the time he spent earning that trophy, but had to pay him for overtime, too, because he didn’t get his work done during the business day. 

The employee who has box after box of merchandise shipped to the workplace thinks he is not only entitled to be paid for the time he spent online, but for more time.

In the litigation context, shouldn’t the time employees spend in personal activities be weighed against the additional time for which the employee is seeking recovery?

If an employee contends he or she was not paid for 6 minutes of off-the-clock work each day, but the employer can show that he or she spent 30 minutes a day engaged in personal activities, shouldn’t that employee recover nothing?

Very generally speaking, the courts haven’t weighed in on this issue yet. 

But someday, perhaps soon, they will.

And if they begin subtracting the time spent on personal activities on their smartphones or laptops from an employee’s claim the he or she was not paid for all of the time worked, they are likely going to find that many of the employees claiming they were underpaid were actually overpaid. 

That just makes sense, doesn’t it?

In this way, perhaps technology will meet its match in something that has been around for centuries – logic. 

by Michael Kun

The workplace used to be a lot easier to manage.  That’s because the workplace used to be, well, the workplace.

Employees went to work, they worked, and they went home.  And when they went home, they were usually done working for the day, unless they got an emergency phone call from the boss. 

There was the workplace, and there was home, and (with those rare exceptions) never the twain shall meet.

For better or worse, those days are long gone.

First, there was the answering machine at home. 

Then, the cellphone.

Now, few are those employees who do not have a device connecting them to work in their shirt pockets or their purses.  I’m speaking, of course, about smartphones. 

A great many employees, particularly those in engaged in non-manual labor, have workplace email addresses. 

And, more and more, employers allow their employees to send and receive emails from their workplace email addresses through their smartphones. 

And, more and more, employees are sending and receiving emails after-hours on those smartphones.

As employment lawyers, we have long warned clients and prospective clients that it was only a matter of time before non-exempt employees – and their lawyers – started filing suits contending that they were entitled to be paid for the additional time they spent after-hours reviewing and responding to work-related emails.  And, whenever those lawsuits would be filed, we anticipated that they would be filed as class actions or collective actions. 

Well, that day apparently has come.

 Although there have been more than a few lawsuits filed over the years alleging that non-exempt employees were entitled to be paid for the time spent “off the clock” dealing with work-related emails, those claims are more prevalent now than ever. 

Perhaps recognizing that the time spent on after-hours emails might be sporadic or that it might be only a few minutes on many occasions – which would create an argument that such time is non-compensable, de minimis time – employees and their attorneys are not simply filing suit over email time.  Instead, they are filing suit over all alleged “off the clock” time, including not only time spent on emails, but also time spent booting up computers at the beginning of the day and shutting them down at the end, as well as other, similar activities. 

Checking emails after hours may only take 5 or 6 minutes a day, they argue, but when you add it to the other “off the clock” time, it is significant.  And, they argue, they are entitled to be paid for all of that time.

Fifteen minutes a day, they argue, adds up for one employee.  Multiply it by an entire workforce, and the potential exposure could be significant.

There are a number of ways employers can address this phenomenon:

(1)   Employers can reassess their needs and determine whether it would be wise to prevent employees from receiving work-related emails anywhere other than at work.  In other words, they can determine whether to prevent employees from even accessing emails to and from their work email addresses on their smartphones (or on their home computers, laptops or tablets).  If there is an emergency after hours, you can contact them the old-fashioned way – pick up the phone and call them. 

(2)   Should employers decide not to cut off email access outside of the workplace, they – and management employees in particular – can address how often and under what circumstances they send emails to employees after hours.  When you send an email to an employee at 10:00 pm, you may well intend that he or she not look at it until the morning.  But you know your employees are likely to do the same thing you do when their smartphones buzz to let them know they have received new emails – they are going to check.  Yes, that may be a reflex.  But the employee will not know if it is an emergency until he or she opens your email. 

(3)   If employers are not going to cut off access to emails, they should consider revising their time reporting systems to allow employees to report time spent dealing with after-hours emails.  At the very least, that would help to cut off exposure on an “off the clock” claim.  And should employees report significant time spent after hours engaged in such conduct, the employer can then reconsider (1) and (2). 

by Stuart M. Gerson

On January 27, 2014, the United States Supreme Court resolved a long-standing and hotly-contested issue of importance to unions, when it held that time spent donning and doffing required protective gear was not compensable under the Fair Labor Standards Act and the terms of a collective bargaining agreement.   Sandifer v. United States Steel Corp., No. 12–417. 

The plaintiffs had filed a putative collective action under the FLSA, seeking back pay for time spent donning and doffing pieces of protective gear that they were required to wear because of hazards in the workplace.

U. S. Steel contended that this donning-and-doffing time, which would otherwise be compensable under the FLSA, was not compensable based on a provision in the collective bargaining agreement with the petitioners’ union.  The Supreme Court stated that the “validity of that provision depends, in turn, upon the applicability of 29 U. S. C. §203(o) to the time at issue.”

Under §203(o), which was added to the FLSA in 1949, a labor union and an employer may agree (in a collective-bargaining agreement) on whether “time spent in changing clothes . . . at the beginning or end of each workday” will be compensable.  (Emphasis added.)

In Sandifer, both the District Court and the Seventh Circuit had sided with the employer.  The Supreme Court agreed, holding that the time the workers spent donning and doffing their protective gear was not compensable by operation of the collective bargaining agreement and §203(o). 

The Supreme Court’s ruling turned on whether the donning and doffing of protective gear qualified as “changing clothes” under §203(o).

In determining that donning and doffing protective gear qualifies as “changing clothes,” the Court held that “[d]ictionaries from the era of §203(o)’s enactment indicate that ‘clothes’ denotes items that are both designed and used to cover the body and are commonly regarded as articles of dress… That is what we hold to be the meaning of the word as used in §203(o).” 

The Supreme Court then stated: “We see no basis for the proposition that the unmodified term ‘clothes’ somehow omits protective clothing.”

The Court further held that “time spent in changing clothes” includes any time spent in “altering dress.”

Accordingly, The Supreme Court held that whether one completely puts on different clothes in the workplace, or put a uniform over what he was wearing, the time spent on such activities may be non-compensable under the terms of a collective bargaining agreement.

This has been a matter of considerable interest to manufacturing labor unions and so it is notable that the decision of the Court was unanimous (though Sotomayor, J., disagreed with one footnote). 

Unionized employers ranging from hospitals and hotels and restaurants to manufacturers will be interested in the holding in the Sandifer case, and should consider its impact in future collective bargaining negotiations.

Virtually all employers are aware that, pursuant to the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), they are required to compensate employees for all hours worked.

What is not as clear, however, is whether the time an employee spends at training programs, lectures, meetings, and other similar activities should be considered hours worked. As a result, clients often ask whether they are required to compensate employees for time spent in such training activities.

The short answer to this question is that an employee’s time spent in training sessions should be considered compensable “working time” unless the following four factors are met:

Attendance is outside of the employee’s regular working hours;

Attendance is voluntary;

The training is not directly related to the employee’s job; and

The employee does not perform any productive work during the training.

This “four-factor test,” however, is not as straightforward as it may seem. Indeed, as demonstrated by the below “Common Employer Inquiries and Responses,” these factors contain many nuances that may make it difficult for an employer to easily determine whether training time should be compensable.

Common Employer Inquiries and Responses

i. How should an employer determine whether attendance at a training session is outside “regular working hours?”

By default, some employers interpret the term “regular working hours” to mean the, standard hours of 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. As a result, these employers automatically compensate all employees for any training that takes place during these hours, even for those who do not work this standard schedule. Such an interpretation, however, may result in significant overpayments to your employees.

The term “regular working hours” refers to the particular shift worked by an individual employee.

Thus, if an employee regularly works a shift from 2:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m., an employer would not be required to compensate her for attending a training session from 9:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. (assuming all three other factors were satisfied), since the training session would be outside of her specific regular working hours.

ii. How can an employer ensure that attendance will be considered “voluntary”?

The Department of Labor (“DOL”) classifies training as “voluntary” if (1) the employer does not require the employee to attend the training; and (2) the employee is not led to believe that her employment would be adversely affected if she does not attend the training. If an employer takes an adverse action against the employee as a result of her failure to attend the training, attendance clearly is not voluntary and the employee must be compensated.

Therefore, an employer should explicitly convey to its employees that any unpaid training is not required and ensure that its supervisors and managers do not give any indication that non-attendance will result in an adverse employment action against the non-attending employee.

iii. When is a training considered “directly related to” an employee’s job?

Of all the factors set forth in the four-factor test, the question of whether training is directly related to an employee’s job generates the most employer uncertainty.

In short, training is directly related to an employee’s job if it is designed to make her more effective in her position or to teach her something new she needs to know to perform her current job duties.

Conversely, training is not directly related to an employee’s job when its primary focus is to prepare an employee for advancement or train her for another position, even if it results in incidental improvement to an employee’s ability to perform her regular duties. Furthermore, training is not considered to be directly related to an employee’s job when an employer’s non-mandatory training program is of general applicability and corresponds to courses offered by independent, bona fide institutions of learning.

Questions from employers often arise as to whether non-mandatory training offered by the employer to facilitate attainment or renewal of a license, permit or certification is directly related to an employee’s job.

For example, a furniture distributor may offer non-mandatory training sessions to its delivery drivers so that they can obtain their required commercial driver’s license. Although the training would arguably make an employee more effective in her position as a driver, the program is of general applicability and corresponds to courses offered by other entities in accordance with the requirements of the state licensing division. Moreover, while the employee’s receipt of the license is mandatory, the employer’s training program is non-mandatory, as it is simply one means of achieving the required documentation.

Consequently, as long as the training offered by the employer corresponds to the requirements outlined by the state licensing division, an employee’s attendance at the employer-sponsored program would not be compensable.

iv. What type of work performed during training constitutes “productive work”?

The DOL defines “productive work” as any work that an employer is able to use for business purposes.

Therefore, so long as an employer does not permit an employee to actually perform work that could benefit it during the training session (as opposed to simply learning to perform such work), an employee would not be considered to have performed productive work during the training.

Conclusion

Although the FLSA creates a presumption in favor of compensation for training sessions, there are many instances in which an employer is not required to pay employees for such time. As a result, employers should consistently evaluate their policies and practices regarding their training sessions to ensure they are not compensating employees for time when there is no obligation to do so.

By: Kara M. Maciel

The following is a selection from the Firm’s October Take 5 Views You Can Use which discusses recent developments in wage hour law.

  1. IRS Will Begin Taxing a Restaurant’s Automatic Gratuities as Service Charges

Many restaurants include automatic gratuities on the checks of guests with large parties to ensure that servers get fair tips. This method allows the restaurant to calculate an amount into the total bill, but it takes away a customer’s discretion in choosing whether and/or how much to tip the server. As a result of this removal of a customer’s voluntary act, the Internal Revenue Service (“IRS”) will begin classifying automatic gratuities as service charges, taxed like regular wages, beginning in January 2014.

This change is expected to be problematic for restaurants because the new treatment of automatic gratuities will complicate payroll accounting. Each restaurant will be required to factor automatic gratuities into the hourly wage of the employee, meaning the employee’s regular rate of pay could vary from day to day, thus adding a potential complication to overtime payments. Furthermore, because restaurants pay Social Security and Medicaid taxes on the amount that its employees claim in tips, restaurants are eligible for an income-tax credit for some or all of these payments. Classifying automatic gratuities as service charges, however, would lower that possible income-tax credit.

Considering that the IRS’s ruling could disadvantage servers as well, restaurants may now want to consider eliminating the use of automatic gratuities. Otherwise, employees could come under greater scrutiny in reporting their tips as a result of this ruling. Furthermore, these tips would be treated as wages, meaning upfront withholding of federal taxes and delayed access to tip earnings until payday.

Some restaurants, including several in New York City, have begun doing away with tips all together. These restaurants have replaced the practice of tipping with either a surcharge or increased food prices that include the cost of service. They can then afford to pay their servers a higher wage per hour in lieu of receiving tips. This is another way for restaurants to ensure that employees receive a sufficient wage, while simultaneously removing the regulatory burdens that a tip-system may impose.

  1. The New DOL Secretary, Tom Perez, Spells Out the WHD’s Enforcement Agenda

On September 4, 2013, the new U.S. Secretary of Labor, Tom Perez, was sworn in. During his remarks, Secretary Perez outlined several priorities for the U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”), including addressing pay equity for women, individuals with disabilities, and veterans; raising the minimum wage; and fixing the “broken” immigration system.

Most notably, and unsurprisingly, Secretary Perez emphasized the enforcement work of the Wage and Hour Division (“WHD”). Just last year, the WHD again obtained a record amount—$280 million—in back-pay for workers. Employers can expect to see continued aggressive enforcement efforts from the WHD in 2013 and 2014 on areas such as worker misclassification, overtime pay, and off-the-clock work. In fact, Secretary Perez stated in his swearing-in speech that “when we protect workers with sensible safety regulations, or when we address the fraud of worker misclassification, employers who play by the rules come out ahead.” By increasing its investigative workforce by over 40 percent since 2008, the WHD has had more time and resources to undertake targeted investigation initiatives in addition to investigations resulting from complaints, and that trend should continue.

  1. DOL Investigates Health Care Provider and Obtains $4 Million Settlement for Overtime Payments

On September 16, 2013, the DOL announced that Harris Health System (“Harris”), a Houston health care provider of emergency, outpatient, and inpatient medical services, had agreed to pay more than $4 million in back wages and damages to approximately 4,500 current and former employees for violations of the overtime and recordkeeping provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”). The DOL made this announcement after the WHD completed a more than two-year investigation into the company’s payment system, prompted by claims that employees were not being fully compensated.

Under the FLSA, employers typically must pay their non-exempt employees an overtime premium of time-and-one-half their regular rate of pay for all hours worked in excess of 40 hours in a workweek. Employers within the health care industry have special overtime rules. Notably, for all employers, an employee’s “regular rate of pay” is not necessarily the same as his or her hourly rate of pay. Rather, an employee’s “regular rate of pay” includes an employee’s “total remuneration” for that week, which consists of both the employee’s hourly rate as well as any non-discretionary forms of payment, such as commissions, bonuses, and incentive pay. The FLSA dictates that an employee’s “regular rate” of pay is then determined by dividing the employee’s total remuneration for the week by the number of hours worked that week.

The DOL’s investigation concluded that Harris had failed to: (i) include incentive pay when determining its employees’ regular rate of pay for overtime purposes, and (ii) maintain proper overtime records. As a result, Harris owed its employees a total of $2.06 million in back wages and another $2.06 million in liquidated damages.

Because an employee’s “total remuneration” for a workweek may consist of various forms of compensation, employers must consistently evaluate and assess their payment structures and payroll systems to determine the payments that must be included in an employee’s overtime calculations beyond just the hourly wage. Additionally, employers should conduct periodic audits to ensure that they are maintaining full and accurate records of all hours worked by every employee.

  1. Federal Court Strikes Down DOL Tip Pooling Rule

In 2011, the WHD enacted a strict final rule related to proper tip pooling and service charge practices. This final rule was met with swift legal challenges, and, this summer, the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon (“District Court”) concluded that the DOL had exceeded its authority when implementing its final rule. See Oregon Rest. and Lodging Assn. v. Solis, No. 3:12-cv-01261 (D. Or. June 7, 2013).

Inconsistent interpretations of the FLSA among various appellate courts have created confusion for both employers and courts regarding the applicability of valid tip pools. One of the most controversial interpretations of the FLSA occurred in early 2010, when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that an employer could require servers to pool their tips with non-tipped kitchen and other “back of the house staff,” so long as a tip credit was not taken and the servers were paid minimum wage. See Cumbie v. Woody Woo, Inc., 596 F.3d 577 (9th Cir. 2010). According to the Ninth Circuit, nothing in the text of the FLSA restricted tip pooling arrangements when no tip credit was taken; therefore, because the employer did not take a tip credit, the tip pooling arrangement did not violate the FLSA.

In 2011, the DOL issued regulations that directly conflicted with the holding in Woody Woo. As a result, employers could no longer require mandatory tip pooling with back-of-the-house employees. In conjunction with this announcement, the DOL issued an advisory memo directing its field offices nationwide, including those within the Ninth Circuit, to enforce its final rule prohibiting mandatory tip pools that include such employees who do not customarily and regularly receive tips.

Shortly after the issuance of the DOL’s final rule, hospitality groups filed a lawsuit against the DOL challenging the agency’s regulations that exclude back-of-the-house restaurant workers from employer-mandated tip pools. The lawsuit sought to declare the DOL regulations unlawful and inapplicable to restaurants that pay employees who share the tips at least the federal or applicable state minimum wage with no tip credit. On June 10, 2013, the District Court granted the plaintiffs’ summary judgment motion, holding that the DOL exceeded its authority by issuing regulations on tip pooling in restaurants. The District Court stated that the language of Section 203(m) of the FLSA is clear and unambiguous; it only imposes conditions on employers that take a tip credit.

The District Court’s decision may have a large impact on the tip pool discussion currently before courts across the country, especially if employers in the restaurant and hospitality industries begin to challenge the DOL’s regulations. Given the District Court’s implicit message encouraging legal challenges against the DOL, the status of the law regarding tip pooling is more uncertain than ever. Although the decision is a victory for employers in the restaurant and hospitality industry, given the aggressive nature of the DOL, employers in all circuits should still be extremely careful when instituting mandatory tip pool arrangements, regardless of whether a tip credit is being taken.

  1. Take Preventative Steps When Facing WHD Audits

In response to a WHD audit or inspection, here are several preventative and proactive measures that an employer can take to prepare itself prior to, during, and after the audit:

  • Prior to any notice of a WHD inspection, employers should develop and implement a comprehensive wage and hour program designed to prevent and resolve wage hour issues at an early stage. For example, employers should closely examine job descriptions to ensure that they reflect the work performed, review time-keeping systems, develop a formal employee grievance program for reporting and resolving wage and hour concerns, and confirm that all written time-keeping policies and procedures are current, accurate, and obeyed. Employers should also conduct regular self-audits with in-house or outside legal counsel (to protect the audit findings under the attorney-client privilege) and ensure that they address all recommendations immediately.
  • During a DOL investigation, employers should feel comfortable to assert their rights, including requesting 72 hours to comply with any investigative demand, requesting that interviews and on-site inspection take place at reasonable times, participating in the opening and closing conferences, protecting trade secrets and confidential business information, and escorting the investigator while he or she is at the workplace.
  • If an investigator wants to conduct a tour of an employer’s facility, an employer representative should escort the investigator at all times while on-site. While an investigator may speak with hourly employees, the employer may object to any impromptu, on-site interview that lasts more than five minutes on the grounds that it disrupts normal business operations.
  • If the DOL issues a finding of back wages following an investigation, employers should consider several options. First, an employer can pay the amount without question and accept the DOL’s findings. Second, an employer can resolve disputed findings and negotiate reduced amounts at an informal settlement conference with the investigator or his or her supervisor. Third, an employer can contest the findings and negotiate a formal settlement with the DOL’s counsel. Finally, an employer may contest the findings, prepare a defense, and proceed to trial in court.

In addition, employers should review our WHD Investigation Checklist, which can help them ensure that they have thought through all essential wage and hour issues prior to becoming the target of a DOL investigation or private lawsuit.

Following these simple measures could significantly reduce an employer’s exposure under the FLSA and similar state wage and hour laws.