Wait a Minute…California Supreme Court Says Employers Must Pay for De Minimis Off-the-Clock Work

On July 26, 2018, the California Supreme Court found that employers must compensate workers for the time they spend on certain menial tasks after clocking out of their shifts. In a unanimous decision, the Court held that California wage law did not bar a putative class action brought by a former Starbucks employee who routinely spent several minutes on trivial close-out tasks after his shift.

Douglas Troester, a former shift supervisor at Starbucks, argued that he and other employees should be paid for closing tasks such as locking up the store, activating the security alarm, and walking coworkers to their cars—tasks that took an additional four to ten minutes each day after clocking out. The district court agreed with Starbucks that this time qualified as “de minimis,” a federal doctrine found in the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) that excuses employers from compensating for small amounts of time that is difficult to track and record. Troester appealed, and the Ninth Circuit asked California’s highest court to decide whether the de minimis rule applied to wage claims brought under California law.

The California Supreme Court said no. The Court concluded that the relevant California statutes and wage orders have not incorporated the de minimis doctrine found in the FLSA. Further, the Court noted that “although California has a de minimis rule that is a background principle of state law, the rule is not applicable here. The relevant statutes and wage order do not allow employers to require employees to routinely work for minutes off-the-clock without compensation.” It found that “a few extra minutes of work each day can add up” and that employers bear the burden of devising alternatives to prevent off-the-clock work. Setting aside the practicality behind the de minimis rule, the Court cited to technological advances, customizable tracking tools, and employee surveys that employers may use to ensure employees are compensated for “all time” worked. Notably, the Court’s ruling applies to small tasks employees may be required to complete before or after their shifts.

The Court left open the possibility that there may be “circumstances where compensable time is so minute or irregular that it is unreasonable to expect the time to be recorded.”

The case is now set to resume before the Ninth Circuit, which must apply the California Supreme Court’s ruling. This means Troester’s suit against Starbucks may well be revived. In the meantime, we encourage California employers to take a close look at their policies to ensure compliance with the California Supreme Court’s holding. Stay tuned for updates on this case.