Every Minute Counts: Should Californian Employers Record Every Minute Worked?

In July, the California Supreme Court issued its opinion in Troester v. Starbucks Corp., holding that the federal wage laws that excuse companies from paying workers for de minimis work, i.e. small amounts of time that are difficult to record, do not apply under the California wage and hour standards.

The de minimis rule has been applied by the federal courts for more than 70 years. The doctrine excuses the payment of wages for small amounts of otherwise compensable time upon a showing that the time is administratively difficult to record. For example, courts have held that time spent by employees booting up their computers and shutting down and clocking out are de minimis and not compensable. See e.g. Chambers v. Sears Roebuck and Co., 428 Fed. Appx. 400 (5th Cir. 2011).

In Troester, the California Supreme Court stepped away from the de minimis approach holding that 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.” Troester, (2018) 5 Cal. 5th 829, 847. The plaintiff in Troester “had various duties related to closing the store after he clocked out” and that “on a daily basis, these closing tasks generally took [plaintiff] about 4-10 minutes.” Id. at *21. The Court said this time must be compensated.

Notably, while the Court declined to apply the de minimis standard under the facts of the case, it did not reject the doctrine completely. Indeed, it noted there could be instances involving tasks “so irregular or brief in duration that it would not be reasonable to require employers to compensate employees for the time spent on them.” Troester, 5 Cal. 5th at 848. Thus, the key notion to take away from this case is that off-the-clock work considered significant and regular must be compensated, while insignificant and irregular time could still be considered de minimis. As to the application of the rule, Justice Leondra Kruger wrote a separate concurring opinion offering some concrete examples for when the de minimis rule could apply:

  • Time spent turning on a computer and logging in to an application in order to start a shift and the process takes longer because of a rare and unpredictable software glitch.
  • Time spent reviewing schedule changes notified by e-mail or text message during off hours.
  • Time spent waiting at work for transportation at the end of the day during which time a customer may ask the employee a question not realizing the employee is off duty.
Justice Kruger noted that requiring an employer to accurately record this type of time would be impractical and unreasonable.

What does this ruling mean for California employers?

Although the Troester decision limits the de minimis standard in California, it does not fully reject it. Realistically there will be situations where some work will be impossible to record. The Court made note of this. Therefore, while entities doing business in California can be confident that highly unusual and irregular time spent off-the-clock may not be found compensable, the Troester decision may still have an impact on their business. This is especially true for companies in the service industry such as retailers and restaurants who employ a large number of the hourly workers in our state. These companies may want to conduct a review of their policies, practices, and procedures that impact their employees’ timekeeping. Below are a few examples of what employers in California can do in light of Troester.

  • Review pre-shift and post-shift practices to ensure that there is no regularly occurring off-the-clock work. For example, “post-shift” practices that include locking up the business should be done on the clock.
  • Keep in mind that technological advances can streamline timekeeping practices. For example, many companies employ smartphone applications that can measure time worked to the split of a second.
  • Update handbooks and written policies to ensure compliance. For example, policies should strictly prohibit off-the-clock work and provide employees with a process for submitting claims of off-the-clock work.
  • Train employees, including supervisors, and managers, in their updated policies and procedures.
Although the Troester decision has limited the application of the de minimis doctrine in California, it remains to be seen how it will be applied to other cases moving forward. In the meantime, employers can limit their exposure by proactively reviewing and revising their policies and procedures in light of the decision.

This article was originally published in Lawyer Monthly on August 31, 2018.