People who are not paid a salary and earn an hourly wage often have to perform small tasks before or after a shift at work. For instance, a server in a restaurant may be required to put on an apron and a name tag before clocking in for a shift.
For years, judges and employers worked under the theory that employers did not have to pay employee for performing minor work-related tasks before or after a shift as long as the total amount of time spent on these tasks was under ten minutes. Recently, the California Supreme Court agreed to review a case that may change the way employers can treat this time.
In a case called Troester v. Starbucks, the plaintiff was a manager at Starbucks who sued the company in federal court alleging violations of the state’s Labor Code. The plaintiff claimed that he had not been paid for certain work-related activities that took place after he closed the store for the night. He alleged that he would have to perform 1-2 minutes of work after he shut down the store’s timekeeping software every time that he worked a closing shift.
The plaintiff stated that after he shut down the store’s time keeping software and computer, he would then have to set the alarm and exit and lock the door within one minute of alarming the security system. After he exited the building, he would often have to secure outside patio furniture, or stay late with younger employees who were waiting on rides.
No one disputes that the plaintiff performed these activities off-the-clock; since he had to shut down the computers to close the store, he was often unable to accurately account for the precise minute when he finished working. The issue in the case is whether this extra, de minimus work time of 1-2 minutes per shift is compensable under California law.
Under both state and federal law, the de minimus doctrine acts as a defense for employers who are accused of shorting employees on minimal amounts of time. The doctrine comes from a Latin phrase which means, “the law does not concern itself with trifles.” In short, state and federal courts have consistently found that very small amounts of work which are difficult to record accurately are not subject to labor laws. Instead, these period of time are generally not compensable as long as they happen infrequently and are less than ten minutes long.
In this case, attorneys for Starbucks raised the de minimus doctrine as a defense to the plaintiff’s unpaid wages lawsuit. On appeal to the state Supreme Court, the plaintiff argued that the doctrine is not a defense under California law, which tends to provide more protections for employees than does federal law.
The fact that the California Supreme Court agreed to hear arguments about the case suggests that Court may want to change the way employee work time is calculated. If these minor tasks are actually compensable, then employees may be owed money for back wages. Employees who are required to perform small tasks before or after a shift should keep an eye on this case to see if the Court’s decision will affect their rights.
If you are concerned that your employer is not paying you all of your wages under the law, always speak with an experienced California wage and hour attorney as soon as possible.