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Starbucks Must Pay Workers for Opening and Closing

Off-the-clock work in California, though not facing extinction, had its wings clipped today in a landmark California Supreme Court case. If your employer asks you to do one more thing on your way out, he may very well have to pay you for that.

Time Is Money

In what could be the first of many clashes between federal and California state employment laws, the California Supreme Court unanimously decided that employers in California must pay their workers for minutes they spend "off-the-clock," even if only for a brief task, if that task is routine.

This ruling resolves an issue in a class-action lawsuit pending in federal court by hourly Starbucks employees, who claim the company routinely required its workers to clock out before their shifts' tasks are complete. The lead plaintiff argued that over a 17-month period, he spent time walking employees to their cars and tidying up the store before closing in the evenings. Those extra minutes added up to $102, which could cover some of his bills. Starbucks claimed that federal law allowed them to ask for bits of off-the-clock work without payment.

When is "Off-the-Clock" considered "de minimis"?

Federal laws allow for businesses to excuse small amount of time from paychecks, under the "de minimis doctrine" enacted in 1961, so long as it is used sparingly and not arbitrarily. But more stringent California's wage and labor laws forbid employers from making workers clock-out while they are still under the employer's control and direction.

The justices unanimously agreed that California law requires compensation for all time worked. They additionally concurred that just because the California law does not explicitly mention the federal law doesn't mean that Starbucks can go ahead and apply the federal law anyway. However, the justices left the window open for other cases, stating that the facts in this particular case prevented the "de minimis" defense, but there could be other cases where it would apply, such as when the periods of "bits of work" are irregular or difficult to measure, putting an unreasonable burden on the employer.

What's Next?

The case now goes back to the Ninth Circuit court, where it is under appellate review. Look for future "off-the-clock" cases to arise in California concerning compensation over time spent at home reading and corresponding to emails. The ubiquitous digital workplace may soon get reigned in.

If you feel like your employer has asked you to perform duties off-the-clock on a regular basis, contact your local employment lawyer, who can listen to your case and advise you on how best to proceed.

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