Employers must keep track of hours worked by hourly, non-exempt employees. Any timekeeping method is permitted, as long as it is complete and accurate. The need to track hours might appear obvious at first, but in reality, this simple rule is not always easy to follow. For example, when hourly employees are out in the field, telecommuting, or traveling, requiring employees to account for their time can prove challenging. Traditionally, time tracking requirements envision a dated scenario in which employees start and end their shifts at a set location, punching in and out on a time clock (or some similar mechanism for tracking time). In that scenario, the employer has an accurate record of the length of each shift worked, as well as exact start and stop times. But, increasingly, this basic example is not the case.

As workplaces modernize and employees’ work locations grow increasingly fluid, it is important for employers to remember that time must be tracked. One trap many employers fall into is asking employees to turn in a timesheet at the end of each week, in which case employees may simply write in identical hours for each day (i.e., 9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.) for a perfect 40-hour week. These types of “perfect” time records, of course, do not reflect actual hours worked. There will always be that day the employee started work 20 minutes late, or, more problematically, the day the employee put in 45 minutes of unaccounted-for overtime. If an employer is required to produce time records in a lawsuit or for an audit, time records that do not reflect actual hours worked are akin to no time records at all. The lack of records showing the exact hours worked by a non-exempt employee often create a presumption that the employee’s version of hours worked is the correct version. The employer then faces an uphill battle trying to overcome this presumption of underpayment and prove the employee was, in fact, paid accurately.

Tracking meal periods poses a similar set of problems. Even when employees start and end their shifts at the same location, there remains the issue of how to record meal breaks while out in the field. Several states have meal break requirements on the books. Employers required to provide these breaks should maintain records showing that the employees actually take the meal breaks (particularly if the meal breaks are unpaid), so there is no question the meal breaks are being provided. For employees who report to a central location, but then work in the field, there often is no mechanism for the employee to clock out for the meal break and back in at its conclusion. Simply deducting time for meal breaks after the fact or having employees record their meal breaks at the end of the shifts is less than ideal in terms of accurate time recording. Ideally, employees should have a way to record meal breaks in real time, either on a physical hand-written time card or by another method, in which the actual length of the break, as well as start and stop times, are accurately recorded.

Preventive practices such as simply requiring employees to write down the exact start and end time of their shifts and breaks — and not just a presumptive set of times employees may habitually put in — can prevent significant headaches in the long run. Employers are wise to institute methods for accurately tracking time worked. If requiring employees to clock in and out at a specific physical work location is not possible, options for remote timekeeping should be explored. Also, if an employer’s only method of tracking employee time is relying on times employees report on written records, employers may want to consider regularly reviewing those employees’ handwritten records to audit whether it appears employees are reporting their actual work and break time with precision or just writing in the same in and out times, and same break times, day after day, as such records are very likely neither realistic nor accurate. A variance of a few minutes a day here and there, and time records showing in and out times that do not always come in on the hour or half hour, are far more likely to look accurate and credible. Taking these kinds of relatively simple steps can cut down on significant headaches years in the future.