Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Lawsuits over off-the-clock smart phone use ask, “What is work?”

More than two years ago I cautioned that employers who require non-exempt employees to carry Blackberries or other devices that receive work-related emails could be liable for the time those employees spend reading and responding to those emails outside of work. (Can't get away from the office).

It appears that the plaintiffs’ bar has caught with this potential theory of liability. Michael Sanserino, in Monday’s Wall Street Journal, reports that two different lawsuits have been filed claiming that hourly employees should be compensated for time spent responding to emails while off the clock.

Even if reading and responding to work related email is work-related (and it likely is), I’m not convinced that employers should have to pay for any time spent performing these tasks. Most messages can be read in a matter of seconds or, at most, a few short minutes. The Fair Labor Standards Act 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.” 29 C.F.R. § 785.47. Think of the administrative nightmare of an HR or payroll department having to track, record, and pay for each and every fraction of a minute an employee spends reading an email.

If a business wants to err on the side of caution, it could always draft a policy requiring employees to turn off their smart phones when they leave work for the day, or simply leave them at the office. With that policy, though, why issue the devices in the first place?

For more thoughts on this topic, I recommend the thoughts of my fellow bloggers:

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