In the November 30, 2010 issue of Employment Law 360, Alfred Robinson posits three continuing trends in FLSA litigation: 1) donning and doffing cases; 2) exemption misclassification cases; and, 3) off-the-clock work cases. I concur, with the addition of a group of cases that I will call “blackberry cases” or “checking e-mail” cases.
The issue of donning and doffing concerns clothing and protective gear. It raises the more global issue, however, which is when are preliminary and postliminary activities sufficiently related to and integral to the main job that the time spent doing them becomes (somehow) compensable. Mr. Robinson identifies three factors that go into the calculus of whether the time is compensable, but two of them—compulsion by the employer and benefit (if any) to the employer are within the employer’s control. The third is whether the activity is connected. I go a step further—if the activity is somehow mandated by an outside government agency or other governing body, then the activity will likely be deemed compensable.
The next category are misclassification cases. He points to the fact that the US DOL has stopped issuing Opinion Letters and now will only be issuing so-called Interpretations. Interestingly, the first of these involved whether Mortgage Loan Officers fit within the administrative exemption. I predict that more class actions will target classes of employees deemed administrative. Of the three white collar exemptions, the toughest one to defend is the administrative exemption.
The last category are “off-the-clock” cases, which means employees allegedly working through lunch and not being paid, especially where the employer has an automatic deduction policy. These cases also include instances where employees claim they started/reported early or stayed late and were never paid. Again, with the use of smart clocks, which may automatically punch people in and out at their assigned shift times, the employer may have a tough time proving that employees did not report early, did not start work early, but were prevented from punching in to reflect that work was performed because the smart clock would not allow it. These are dangerous cases.
The blackberry and email cases are going to become a real nightmare, I believe. Everybody does it, even when they are off work at night and on the weekends. The pressures of business, of employment in these complicated times and the unceasing desire to show our employers that we dedicated and diligent contribute to this perpetual “need” to check e-mail. If employers do not have policies addressing such usage, i.e. prohibiting it, I believe a rash of class actions involving claims by dozens/hundreds of workers that their checking of e-mail pre/post work is compensable time is headed for the employer world like a rocketing comment. That is the specter before us and I fear it will raise its head in the coming year(s).