In July, the California Supreme Court announced that various provisions of the Labor Code and the IWC Wage Orders did not incorporate the de minimis doctrine. According to that doctrine, some alleged wrongs are so trivial or hard to measure that courts will disregard them. The de minimis doctrine applies to the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, so under that law, employers can disregard small amounts of time (a few minutes) in calculating what employees are owed. The California Supreme Court announced, however, that that was not the case under corresponding state laws.

On August 29, 2018, the court slightly modified its earlier opinion, stating that:

“The opinion herein is modified as follows: The final paragraph of the opinion … is modified to read: We hold that the relevant California statutes and wage order have not incorporated the de minimis doctrine found in the FLSA. We further conclude that although California has a de minimis rule that is a background principle of state law, the rule is not applicable to the regularly reoccurring activities that are principally at issue here. The relevant statutes and wage order do not allow employers to require employees to routinely work for minutes off the clock without compensation. We leave open whether there are wage claims involving employee activities that are so irregular or brief in duration that employers may not be reasonably required to compensate employees for the time spent on them. The petition for rehearing is denied.” (emphasis added)

The reference to “reoccurring activities” and employees “routinely” working for minutes off the clock indicates that the court is addressing situations where employees are required to perform some off-the-clock work on a repeated or regular basis, such as closing shop or shutting down systems. So a different rule may apply to activities that are more irregular or isolated. In fact, the court said as much in its earlier version of the opinion by noting that there may be employee activities “where compensable time is so minute or irregular that it is unreasonable to expect the time to be recorded.” The more recent modification simply clarifies that that is still the case. 

Our recommendations for employers remain the same:

  1. Do everything possible to ensure that employees don’t clock out until they’ve completed all work-related tasks. This includes security checks, closing shop, and exiting the work premises.
  2. If you use fixed time clocks, locate them as close as practicable to the exits. Or better yet, look at more advanced systems that employees can operate remotely, The court specifically referred to “advances in technology … shaping our understanding of what fractions of time can be reliably measured.”
  3. Ensure that whatever policy you use to round off workers’ time entries is facially neutral (i.e., you’re just as likely to round up as to round down).
  4. Require non-exempt employees to report any time they work after hours. Seemingly trivial tasks like checking e-mail or an online schedule could be compensable.
  5. Train managers on how and when to communicate with non-exempt staff after hours.
  6. If employees do after-hours work without authorization, discipline them, but pay for the time.

Is this modification good news for employers? No. But it may be slightly less awful than it was before.

An ancient maxim of jurisprudence states that “the law disregards trifles.” Or in Latin: De minimis non curat lex. The underlying principle is that some alleged wrongs are so trivial or hard to measure that courts don’t want to be bothered with them. At least, that’s true of most courts. In an opinion issued today, the California Supreme Court said that the “de minimis” doctrine is not part of California wage and hour Law.

The opinion arose from a federal case in which a class-action plaintiff claimed that nonmanagers were shortchanged for the time between when they clocked out and when they left the store. The evidence showed that, had the plaintiff been paid for this time, he would have earned an additional $102.67 over a 17-month period (or approximately 29¢ per workday). The federal court granted summary judgment for the employer based on the de minimis doctrine and plaintiff appealed to the Ninth Circuit. The Ninth Circuit asked the California Supreme Court to advise it as to whether California applied the de minimis doctrine to wage claims.

In today’s decision, the court answered the question in the negative, stating that there is no convincing evidence that California wage and hour laws incorporate the de minimis standard. That should be a surprise to the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement, whose Enforcement Policies and Interpretations Manual and opinion letters expressly adopted the standard. But the court explained that those aren’t binding. In knee-jerk fashion, the court again trotted out the principle that the Labor Code and wage orders must be construed liberally to protect employees and issued a unanimous opinion that should have plaintiffs’ class action lawyers celebrating all over the state. The court left open the possibility that there may be employee activities that are so brief or irregular that they don’t require compensation, but the four to ten minutes at issue in this case didn’t fit into that category.

What should employers do now?

  1. Do everything possible to ensure that employees don’t clock out until they’ve completed all work-related tasks. This includes security checks, closing shop, and exiting the work premises.
  2. If you use fixed time clocks, ensure that they are as close as possible to the exits. Or better yet, look at more advanced systems that employees can operate remotely, The court specifically referred to “advances in technology … shaping our understanding of what fractions of time can be reliably measured.”
  3. Ensure that whatever policy you use to round off workers’ time entries is facially neutral (i.e., you’re just as likely to round up as to round down).
  4. Require non-exempt employees to report any time they work after hours. Seemingly trivial tasks like checking e-mail or an online schedule could be compensable.
  5. Train managers on how and when to communicate with non-exempt staff after hours.
  6. If employees do after-hours work without authorization, discipline them, but pay for the time.
  7. Stop being surprised when the California Supreme Court rejects seemingly well-established legal principles on the basis that it needs to protect the most thoroughly protected employees on the planet.

Employers are still reeling from last week’s decision in Dynamex Operations West, Inc. v. Superior Court, in which the California Supreme Court said that employers (and even a state agency that protects workers) were using the wrong standard to distinguish employees and independent contractors under the state’s Wage Orders. A month before that, in Alvarado v. Dart Container Corporation of Californiathe same court announced a more employee-friendly way of calculating overtime for employees who receive bonuses.

These cases share two things. First, they put big smiles on the faces of lawyers who file wage and hour class actions. Second, both cases premised their decisions in part on California’s goal of protecting workers. In Dynamex, the court relied on the “general principle that wage orders are the type of remedial legislation that must be liberally construed in a manner that serves its remedial purposes.” The court in Alvarado noted that one of the “overarching interpretive principles” to guide its analysis was that “the state’s labor laws are to be liberally construed in favor of worker protection.” No mention was made of the fact that California workers have more far-reaching protections than workers in any other state.

While Dynamex and Alvarado provide examples from the last 45 days, the courts have been interpreting employee protections liberally for many decades. During that time, workers’ rights keep expanding further and further. I am certainly not suggesting that workers should not be protected from unscrupulous employers. But does anyone pay attention to the principle that employers who make every effort to follow the law shouldn’t be subjected to potentially ruinous litigation exposure each time the courts reinterpret the law in a new direction?

Determining whether a California worker is an independent contractor or an employee has always been difficult. Judges deciding the issue have complained that the test used by California courts “provides nothing remotely close to a clear answer.” Then there was the nail salon that was told by one state agency that its workers were employees and by another that they were independent contractors. So there’s no question that the law in this area has been messy.

On Monday, it got considerably messier. That’s when the California Supreme Court issued its decision in Dynamex Operations West, Inc. v. Superior Court. For years — even decades — judges, government agencies, and lawyers have interpreted the law to say that the key to distinguishing between employees and independent contractors was whether the company had the right to control the manner and means by which the worker accomplished the desired result. So if drivers for a gig-economy car service decided what days to work, when to start work on a particular day, where to work, what to wear, when to take breaks and for how long, and when to quit for the day, there was an excellent chance that they’d be considered independent contractors,

Under the California Wage Orders, which guarantee employees a minimum wage, maximum hours, overtime compensation, meal and rest breaks, and more, that is no longer the case. Now, according to the California Supreme Court, companies must meet a three-prong test to establish independent contractor status (“the ABC test”).

  • A) The company must not be able to control or direct what the worker does, either by contract or in actual practice. This is similar to the test used in the past.
  • B) The worker must perform tasks outside of the hiring entity’s usual course of business. So if you’re a driver for a ride service, a delivery person for a delivery service, or a seamstress for a clothing company, you can’t be an independent contractor no matter how little control the company has over you.
  • C) The worker must be engaged in an independently established trade, occupation, or business. It’s not enough that the company doesn’t prohibit the worker from having his own business or working for others. Instead, the court will look at factors such as whether the business is incorporated or licensed, whether it’s advertised, and whether it offers services to the public or other potential customers.

It is the employers burden to satisfy all three prongs to establish that the worker is an independent contractor. If it fails to establish one, the worker is entitled to be treated as an employee under the Wage Orders. (The Wage Orders themselves are not particularly helpful in this regard. For example, they circularly define “employee” as ” any person employed by an employer.”)

The Court spent 80+ pages explaining its rationale. Nowhere in that lengthy analysis was any recognition of the upheaval this opinion will cause. Millions of workers in the state that were considered independent contractors will now be deemed employees. This will require employers who have done everything they could to follow the law as it was then understood to reevaluate the nature of the relationship with many of their workers and either modify the relationship or provide them the pay and treatment required by the Wage Orders. They also face litigation, including potential class actions, from workers complaining that they were misclassified. And since this case only addresses the wage order definition, they need to apply different standards (which can lead to different conclusions) in deciding how to characterize workers for purposes such as workers compensation and payroll taxes. As I said, a messy situation just got messier.

Employees generally love Alternative Workweek Schedules. They prefer, for example, working four 10-hour days to working five eight-hour days. They work the same number of hours but they get an additional day off and less time commuting. The advantage to employers is that they can give employees the schedule they prefer without incurring additional overtime liability. But before California employers can implement an Alternative Workweek Schedule (or AWS), they need to jump through all sorts of hoops, including having secret ballot elections where two thirds of the affected employees approve the arrangement. All this is spelled out in Section 3 of the Wage Orders. Get it wrong and you risk employees coming back down the road and asking for years’ worth of unpaid overtime.

Once an employer in California adopts an AWS, different rules apply to (for example) sending employees home early, transferring them to different work units and locations, and changing their schedules. The following Q&A addresses many of these issues.

1.   What happens if an employee scheduled to work 12 hours as part of an AWS is asked to work a 12-hours shift on a different day?

Because they are not subject to an AWS that covers that day, all hours they work on that day would be considered overtime. The employee would get 1.5 times his regular rate of pay for the first 8 hours and double his regular rate of pay for the last 4 hours.

2.   What happens if an employee scheduled to work 10 hours as part of an AWS is sent home after 9 hours?

If you require the employee to work fewer hours in a day than they’re normally scheduled to work, you lose the advantage of the AWS. So in this case, you pay overtime (time and a half) after 8 hours on that day.

3.   What happens if an employee scheduled to work 10 hours as part of an AWS is sent home 10 or fewer minutes before their shift ends?

Pay them according to the AWS, but don’t make a habit of this.

4.   What happens if an employee scheduled to work 10 hours as part of an AWS is sent home between 10 and 30 minutes early?

Don’t do that. Keep them around until the shift ends. It’s cheaper to pay them to do nothing than to unnecessarily incur an hour and a half or more of overtime.

5.   What happens if an employee scheduled to work 10 hours asks to leave after 9 hours?

If the employee volunteers to work fewer hours than they’re scheduled as part of an AWS, there is no overtime liability. But have the employee put their request to leave early in writing (even e-mail) to avoid disputes later as to whether it was voluntary.

6.   What happens if an employee scheduled to work 10 hours as part of an AWS is required to work 12 hours on that day?

The additional 2 hours would be paid at time and a half. Any hours beyond 12 would be at double their normal hourly rate.

7.   What happens if an employee who is subject to an AWS is asked to work his normal shift, but at a different location that does not have an AWS?

This work would not be subject to the AWS and would be subject to normal overtime rules.

8.   What happens if an employee who is subject to an AWS volunteers to work his normal shift, but at a different location that does not have an AWS?

Same as paragraph 7.

9.   What happens if an employee who is not subject to an AWS is asked to work on a day she is normally scheduled, but at a different location that has an AWS?

This work would not be subject to the AWS and would be subject to normal overtime rules, unless (1) the employee is told that the different location has an AWS; and (2) the employee works at the different location for one or more full workweeks (as defined under the AWS). If both conditions are met, the employee’s overtime can be calculated the same as other employees who are subject to the AWS for each full workweek the employee works at that location. To avoid disputes later on, have the employee document that she was informed of the AWS.

For example, assume that (1) an employee is assigned from Monday, January 1st through Thursday, January 18th to a location with an AWS; (2) the employee is told in advance about the AWS; and (3) the location’s workweek under the AWS begins Monday at 12:01 a.m. The employee would be paid according to the AWS from Monday, January 1st through Sunday, January 14th and paid normal overtime (e.g. time and a half for 8-12 hours) for time worked between January 15th and 18th (since that is not a full workweek).

As another example, if the situation was the same as in the last paragraph, except the employee learned on January 2nd that the new location had an AWS, the employee would be paid according to the AWS from Monday, January 8th through Sunday, January 14th and paid normal overtime the rest of the time.

10. What happens if an employee who is not subject to an AWS volunteers to work on a day she is normally scheduled, but at a different location that has an AWS?

Same as paragraph 9.

11. What happens if an employee who is subject to an AWS works only at a location that is subject to a different AWS?

The employee would be treated the same as in paragraph 9. In other words, the employee would be paid according to the AWS at the location he was assigned to for each full workweek he worked there, as long as he knew about that AWS in advance.

12. What happens if an employee who is subject to an AWS works in the same workweek at his normal location and at a location that is also subject to an AWS?

The time the employee works at his normally assigned location would be paid according to the AWS at that location. The time he works at the second location would be treated as overtime (time and a half for the first eight hours in a workday, as long as the employee hasn’t yet exceeded 40 hours for the workweek and double time after eight hour in a workday or for all hours beyond 40 in a workweek). If the two locations have different workweeks, use the workweek at the location to which the employee is normally assigned.

13. If an employee is repeatedly asked to deviate from the approved AWS, can the employer lose the benefits of the AWS?

Yes, if the deviations are more than “occasional.”  As a general rule, an alternative workweek must be “regularly scheduled.”

Takeaway: How typical of California law! Employers offering a schedule that employees prefer have to negotiate a maze of complex requirements and face serious exposure for even an accidental misstep. California employers wishing to implement an Alternative Workweek Schedule should get guidance from qualified counsel in doing so. Those with one in place should ensure that their managers understand the consequences of deviating.

We’ve discussed before how phishing scams target employers. A new scam focuses on defendants who have settled class-action claims. The scammers send wire transfer instructions that appear to come from reputable class-action claims administrators. If the defendant wires the funds though, it eventually discovers that it is the victim of a spear phishing attack and that the account it wired the funds do is fraudulent. It is unlikely to ever see that money again, but still owes the money it agreed to provide to the class-action plaintiffs and their attorneys.

Copyright: maxxyustas / 123RF Stock Photo
Copyright: maxxyustas / 123RF Stock Photo

We heard this cautionary tale from a LA Superior Court judge who wanted to get the word out about this new scam. Some poor company, which the judge understandably didn’t name, was out $500,000. This could obviously happen in any case, but is a bigger risk in cases where the settlement details and timeline for payment are readily available.

Consider yourself warned!

Earlier this week, I was advising a client on the termination of one of their spa employees. During the course of the conversation about his poor performance, the issue of his compensation came up. Turns out, while the termination was completely legitimate and non-discriminatory, we discovered liability for the client based on the employee’s commission-only salary structure and failure to provide meal and paid rest breaks. The next evening, while having my haircut, I raised this compensation structure with my stylist, also a massage therapist at a Southern California spa. Lo and behold, same arrangement.

Yesterday, a judge approved a nearly one million dollar settlement for the Sonoma Mission Inn’s posh Willow Stream Spa to settle a wage and hour, 103-member, class action lawsuit. That doesn’t sound relaxing at all.

Woman with face mask in a spa
Copyright: bds / 123RF Stock Photo

Here are some issues I have seen the past few months that can get spas and salons in trouble:

1) Paying by piecework (e.g. per treatment or service): this implicates AB 1513, which became effective January 2016, and requires compensation for all hours worked during a pay period, including breaks and other “non-productive” time. Many workers on a piece work plan are still not being paid for breaks as required by law. AB 1513 also requires a host of record-keeping obligations.

2) Paying by commission: legally speaking, commission payments are a percentage of sales and should not be paid for services performed. With spa or salon employees, it is arguable whether they really “sell” anything, in which case, a commission structure doesn’t work. Payment by commission requires the terms to be in writing and paid in the pay period they are earned. Employers frequently confuse the piece-rate and commission concepts and wind up in non-compliance.

3) Failing to pay minimum wage or overtime: because of the issues above, some spa workers are not receiving proper minimum wage or overtime payments. At spas where the compensation is a hybrid of compensation schemes, employers must be careful to calculate the regular rate properly.

4) Misclassification: some employers are still classifying therapists and aestheticians as independent contractors in likely violation of CA law. Because these workers are working in the spas at the direction of management, it’s a tough argument to make that such workers are independent contractors and exempt from the issues above.

If you are thinking you need a massage (or stiff drink) after reading this, I’m sure you’re not alone.

California has the most stringent meal and rest break rules in the country. If an employee’s break is not taken within the proper time, is not long enough, or is interrupted, the employer is subject to a one-hour penalty. It’s one thing to impose a penalty on employers for not providing a mandated break. But imposing a penalty because the break is minutes late creates absurd situations.

Copyright: gajus / 123RF Stock Photo
Copyright: gajus / 123RF Stock Photo

Here’s just one example. Nonexempt employees get a 10-minute rest period every four hours or “major fraction thereof.” So an employee who works 10 hours gets two rest periods (plus a meal break). But if the employee works past 10 hours, she becomes entitled to a third rest period. If she isn’t offered it, the employer owes her a one-hour penalty. Suppose the employee goes to her supervisor and says that she worked a bit past the 10-hour mark and she’s ready to go home. The supervisor asks if she’s taken a third rest period and she says “No.” The supervisor then has to offer her a 10-minute rest period. The employee obviously doesn’t want or need a rest period. She’d rather just go home. But if the employer doesn’t offer her the break, it owes her for an additional hour.

Every other jurisdiction manages to see that employees receive breaks without these overly restrictive and punitive provisions. If anything, the situation is getting worse with the recent decision in Augustus v. ABM Security emphasizing that employers must not only “relieve their employees of all duties” during their breaks, but must also “relinquish any control over how employees spend their break time.” So don’t expect the number of class action lawsuits against California employers to decrease anytime soon.

Wages, salaries, and benefits make up a large proportion of costs for most businesses. One way to control these costs is to control how much overtime employees work. In California, nonexempt (i.e. hourly) employees are entitled to one and half times their regular rate of pay when they work more than eight hours in a workday or 40 hours in a workweek. They’re also entitled to time and a half for the first eight hours on the seventh day of work in a workweek. Any work in excess of 12 hours in one workday, or eight hours on the seventh workday in a workweek must be paid at twice the employee’s regular rate of pay.

Some businesses address excessive overtime by telling their workers that they need management approval to work overtime. If they work overtime without approval, however, you still need to pay them for that work. You can counsel them, or even take corrective action for their failure to follow instructions. But you still need to pay them. Employees who aren’t paid for all of their time can claim overtime violations, minimum wage violations (for time they weren’t compensated for), waiting time penalties (up to 30 days pay if they weren’t paid everything they were owed at termination), PAGA penalties, attorneys’ fees, and more. California has no shortage of exorbitant penalties for seemingly minor violations.

Copyright: ximagination / 123RF Stock Photo
Copyright: ximagination / 123RF Stock Photo

Similar problems arise if employees who are forbidden to work overtime feel pressured to work “off the clock.” Take the example of a new nurse who needs to finish charting on his patients before he leaves for the day, but who’s also prohibited from working overtime. If he clocks out to finish his work and the employer knows about it, or reasonably should know about it, the employer needs to pay him for that time. Again, it can counsel him or take corrective action for not following the rules, but it can’t withhold his pay.

Managers working to reduce overtime need to make clear to their workers that they may not work off the clock. And if the managers learn of employees doing so, they need to ensure that they are paid for that time. Controlling overtime is an effective way of controlling costs, but only if you do it right. Do it wrong and you risk losing any possible savings and then some defending wage and hour claims.

Copyright: Poofy / 123RF Stock Photo
Copyright: Poofy / 123RF Stock Photo

The California Supreme Court has once again deviated from what many view as clear precedent of the U.S. Supreme Court concerning the enforcement of arbitration agreements. Last week, the California court decided McGill v. Citibank, N.A., holding that state “public policy” precludes the enforcement of arbitration agreements where a class sues for “public injunctive relief” under Business and Professions Code § 17200, California’s much abused “unfair competition” statute. This decision comes on the heels of Iskanian v. CLS, in which the California court held that a class waiver in an arbitration agreement was unenforceable to prevent a representative action under the Private Attorneys General Act, again citing “public policy.” The McGill and Iskanian decisions are at odds with recent SCOTUS opinions such as ATT Mobility v. Concepcion, and American Express Co. v. Italian Colors. In the Italian Colors case, the high court specifically rejected state “public policy” as any kind of exception to the sweeping preemption of the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”).

California has been in a running dog fight with the FAA since 1987. In that year, SCOTUS decided Perry v. Thomas, in which Justice Thurgood Marshal upheld the FAA under the Commerce and Supremacy clauses, and slapped down California’s attempt to undermine arbitration agreements. Thirty years later, California courts remain determined to block arbitration under PAGA and Section 17200 in the face of otherwise enforceable arbitration agreements.

Also, with today’s swearing in of Neil Gorsuch, SCOTUS returned to its full complement of nine justices. Look for the high court to grant review of California and Ninth Circuit cases that follow McGill and Iskanian in the next couple of years with an eye toward overturning those decisions. In the meantime, companies should continue to include waivers of class and representative actions in their arbitration agreements with consumers and employees, noting that the waivers are enforceable to the extent permitted by applicable law.