Thursday, February 14, 2013

We ♥ our phones, but should employees be paid for using them off-duty?


True confession time. I have a Pavlovian response to the new message chime on my iPhone. I can’t help myself. When my phone beeps, I reach for it. I have no choice.

I’m an exempt employee, which means that I am paid a weekly salary, with no eligibility for overtime, regardless of how many hours I work per week. What, however, if I was non-exempt? Could I be owed overtime for my Pavlovian email checking?

Three and a half years ago, I asked, “Lawsuits over off-the-clock smart phone use ask, “What is work?” Last month, one federal court provided us the beginning of an answer.

In Allen v. City of Chicago, a police sergeant filed a collective action on behalf of himself and all similarly situated employees for the city’s failure to pay overtime for time spent outside of work reading and responding to emails on their city-issued Blackberries. According to the plaintiff:

All of the depositions taken to date reveal a workforce… that is expected to be available twenty-four [hours] per day via Blackberry. All of the deponents receive and respond to an onerous amount of email and telephone calls on a daily basis. All deponents felt obligated to respond to these email communications and telephone calls while off duty. Regrettably, a culture has developed where police officers feel compelled to work for free in order to possibly gain a promotion and/or maintain their coveted assignment in a specialized unit.

The district court conditionally certified the collective action:

[W]hile the amount of overtime officers spent on their department-issued BlackBerries may have varied, the policy that allegedly violated the FLSA did not vary: the policy of not granting overtime compensation for off-duty work on BlackBerries…. At the first stage, despite the potential variations in or de minimis use of the department-issued BlackBerries, the Court can “envision a scenario” where the Plaintiffs  and potential class members are similarly situated.

A few points to make—

  1. This opinion is not a decision on the ultimate issue of whether the employees are owed overtime for their off-the-clock use of their mobile devices. It is a conditional certification of a collective action based on a low threshold showing of similarity. We will have to wait and see how the court handles the central legal issue, whether reading and replying to work emails off the clock is compensable “work” under the FLSA.

  2. Even if reading and replying to work-related email is compensable “work,” I’m not convinced that employers should have to pay employees for it. Most messages can be read in a matter of seconds or, at most, a few short minutes. The FLSA calls such time de minimus, and does not require compensation for it. “Insubstantial or insignificant periods of time beyond the scheduled working hours, which cannot as a practical administrative matter be precisely recorded for payroll purposes, may be disregarded.” Think of the administrative nightmare if an HR or payroll department has to track, record, and pay for each and every fraction of a minute an employee spends reading an email.

  3. In reporting on the opinion, The Huffington Post quotes the plaintiffs’ lawyer, “Everybody can relate to this because people are being asked all the time these days to work for free and they are being told to work for free using their phones.” In other words, these claims are dangerous. If you require non-exempt employees to be available by email 24/7, then you are potentially exposed. To protect yourself, let your non-exempt employees go off the clock. If you provide them mobile devices, or let them BYOD and connect them to your network, have a written policy that tells them they are not required to read or reply to emails after hours. Create a culture that lets your employees escape from work while not at work. You cannot prevent a wage and hour lawsuit raising these issues from being filed against you, but you can position yourself to present the best defense possible, and (hopefully) head off the defense of an expensive class or collective action.

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