One of the greatest challenges facing California employers is determining when hourly employees are properly on or off the clock. This is especially true when employees don’t perform their work in a centralized location where they can clock in and out. A decision last week out of the Ninth Circuit – Rutti v. Lojack Corp. – illustrates the difficulty employers face.

Rutti worked for Lojack installing car alarms.  He was paid on an hourly basis starting when he arrived at his first job location and ending when he completed the last installation of the day.  But in a class action lawsuit he filed, Rutti argued that his workday extended beyond those times. 

According to Rutti, his workday began when he was at home receiving his daily assignments, prioritizing the jobs, and planning his route.  He argued that his workday continued as he drove to the first assignment (in a company vehicle he was required to use and in which he was prohibited from running personal errands or giving rides).  He also alleged that, after his last job, he was entitled to be paid as he commuted home in the company vehicle (subject to the same restrictions) and, when he got home, as he logged onto the company’s computer system to transmit data regarding the work performed that day. 

The district court judge granted summary judgment, ruling that Lojack had paid Rutti properly.  Rutti appealed.  Last August the appellate court issued an opinion, which it subsequently withdrew.  It issued a new opinion on March 2, 2010.   

In this latest version, two of the appellate judges (Callahan and Silverman) decided that the time spent transmitting information at the end of the workday may be compensable and reversed that portion of the lower court’s ruling.  Judge Silverman also wrote a separate opinion elaborating on state law issues that the third judge (Hall) joined in, but from which Callahan dissented.  Hall also wrote an opinion (concurring in part and dissenting in part) explaining why the data transmission time should not be compensable.  And Judge Callahan wrote a separate opinion (concurring in part and dissenting in part) explaining why she disagreed with Hall and Silverman’s state law analysis.

So in answering the question whether applicable law required an employer to pay an employee for specific tasks, three judges issued four separate opinions.  Is it any wonder that employers in California are confused about their wage and hour obligations?  Employers who fail to apply these laws properly face huge monetary penalties.  How is that fair if no one seems to understand precisely what these laws require?