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.

I am both proud and excited to be featured in two new training videos for workplace supervisors and human resources representatives handling California-specific and federal wage and hour issues.

Developed and produced by Kantola Productions, “California Wage and Hour Laws: What You Need to Know” is designed to help companies train their supervisors and human resources representatives to become better, more legally compliant managers.  The video consists of modules that break down the complex requirements regarding a variety of wage and hour matters including:

  • Exempt vs. Non-Exempt Employees
  • Employee vs. Independent Contractor
  • Overtime
  • Meal & Rest Breaks
  • Hours Worked

There is also a federal version of the video.

Both videos are available for purchase in several formats:  DVD, online training for up to 25 viewers, or instant streaming for a single user.  To receive a 20% discount, Fox Rothschild clients and their contacts can enter Fox20 in the “catalog code” box when filling out the online purchase form.

Take a look at a clip from the video below.  Enjoy!

Just because it’s logical doesn’t make it legal. And more often than not, what is logical in California is not necessarily legal.

Take the issue of “comp time.” Typically comp time is used to refer to an equitable idea, where someone works when she isn’t supposed to, and in turn is given different time off as “comp time.” Often such comp time is taken off the books, such as an “extra” vacation day that is not logged as such. That can mean the employer has time records that are purposely inconsistent with hours worked. And that’s a problem.

For exempt employees, comp time is really a misnomer. An exempt employee is paid a salary regardless of hours worked (or not worked) in a week. So an exempt employee who works hard one day still gets paid the same as one who doesn’t. Giving an exempt employee a “comp day” for working on a holiday or a 6th day is really just appropriately treating them as exempt. More often than not, the exempt employee is still checking in (i.e., “working” from home) anyway.

For non-exempt employees in California, such a practice is especially fraught with minefields. The key to paying non-exempt employees correctly is to make sure hours worked (and breaks taken) are accurately logged. So, if a non-exempt employee works on a day she typically is scheduled off, she must be paid for that time, even if it results in daily or weekly overtime. If she’s not paid, that’s illegal. Also, paying her for another day when she hasn’t worked, by putting fake hours on a timesheet, is also a problem, as it sets a precedent for falsifying time records.

Of course, the employer can log the day as a paid “comp day,” but in my experience, most employers don’t have that payroll code, and if they do, they don’t use it consistently. And treating employees inconsistently creates another set of issues.

I have experienced employers get sued for inconsistent comp day practices. It can be from exempt employees who claim they are owed a certain number of comp days for holidays worked (when they were supposed to get another day off but never did). That allegation typically comes with a claim for waiting time penalties for failure to pay all wages upon termination. Or, it can be from non-exempt employees who were given comp time instead of being paid overtime. Even if they agreed to it at the time (“don’t worry boss, I’ll take tomorrow off instead of getting the overtime“), it still doesn’t make it legal.

Back in May there was some press about the Working Families Flexibility Act of 2017 that passed the US House of Representatives, and was moving on to the US Senate for deliberations. But even if that passes and amends the FLSA to allow for comp time instead of overtime, it will not apply in California. Why?

32003831 – logical illogical road sign

Always remember that California is special, and when it comes to wage-and-hour law, what is logical is typically illegal.

While they’ve been engaging in the practice for years, California employers finally have a published appellate decision allowing them to round off workers’ time entries. According to See’s Candy Shops, Inc. v. Superior Court, filed October 29, 2012, the practice is allowed as long as the net effect doesn’t penalize employees.

Federal law permitted the practice under the Fair Labor Standards Act, but we’ve long known that complying with federal law isn’t enough for California employers (white-collar exemptions being one glaring example).

See’s used a Kronos timekeeping system that rounded employees’ time to the nearest 6-minute (or tenth of an hour) increment. An employee sued saying the practice unlawfully deprived him (and the class members he intended to represent) of wages earned.

The trial court was receptive to plaintiff’s argument, but the appellate court was not. According to the appellate court, as long as the “policy is neutral, both facially and as applied, the practice is proper.”

The decision is a huge relief for employers that don’t follow their workers around with a stopwatch to record every fraction of a second worked.