Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Overtime pay for reading emails

899402_you_have_mailMore than a year ago I asked the question, "Is time spent outside the office e-mailing from a Blackberry compensable under the Fair Labor Standards Act?" According to yesterday's New York Times, writers for ABC News are asking the same question.

BlackBerrys blur the lines between work and play. A recent dispute at ABC News asked: at what point does checking e-mail after hours constitute working overtime?

Several weeks ago, ABC’s news division presented three new writers with a waiver stating that they would not be compensated for checking their company-issued BlackBerrys after office hours. The waiver prompted some concern, leading ABC to take the BlackBerrys away from the three writers the week of June 9.

Before deciding whether time spent checking emails off-hours is compensable, several questions must be answered:

  1. How much time is spent? The FLSA permits employers to disregard and not pay employees for off-hours de minimis time. Time is considered de minimis if it is insubstantial or insignificant, cannot as a practical administrative matter be precisely recorded for payroll purposes, is no more than a few minutes in duration, and where the failure to count such time is justified by industrial realities.
  2. Is the employee checking emails of his or her choice, or is the employee essentially expected to be on-call 24/7?
  3. Does the employer require the employee to carry a PDA or Blackberry, or does the employee choose to do so as a matter of personal convenience?

The safest course of action for employers is to provide PDAs only to exempt employees. But, if companies are going to provide PDAs to non-exempt employees, they should have a policy in place stating that employees who check emails off-the-clock do so of their own choice, and that the time spent will not be compensated. Of course, such a policy is not foolproof, and businesses who make it possible for employees to remain connected off-duty will have to take the risk that the time might count as hours worked.

My take is that most emailing should meet the test for de minimis time. Checking an email takes at most only a few moments, and it would create an administrative nightmare for companies to have to track this time for pay purposes. While I am not aware of any cases discussing this issue, it is only a matter of time before we get some judicial guidance for companies that provide PDAs to non-exempt workers. In the meantime, this debate remains academic, albeit with significant real-world implications.