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California Supreme Court: the federal de minimis rule does not apply in California wage cases

May employers ask workers to perform brief, minor tasks while off the clock? This is the central question of Troester v. Starbucks, in which a former Starbucks shift supervisor alleged that the company did not properly compensate him for work he was regularly required to perform after clocking out, including transmitting data to corporate offices, activating the store alarm, turning off lights and locking up, walking other workers to their cars or waiting with them for their rides, and occasionally putting away patio furniture that had been left outside. Starbucks argued that the time spent on remaining closing tasks was too negligible to require tracking and compensation.

A federal district court calculated that the shift supervisor's unpaid labor over 17 months added up to just under 13 hours, worth about $103 under the minimum wage at the time. The court then applied the de minimis doctrine (from de minimis non curat lex, "the law does not concern itself with trifles") in finding in favor of Starbucks. The doctrine has been used by federal courts in other cases involving very small amounts of off-the-clock labor under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act.

On appeal, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals asked the California Supreme Court to weigh in on whether the de minimis doctrine may be applied to such unpaid wage claims under the California Labor Code as well. In a July 26 unanimous decision, the California Supreme Court concluded the following:

  • California wage-and-hour law and regulations have not incorporated the de minimis doctrine.
  • Under California law, employers may not require workers to regularly work minutes off the clock.

The Ninth Circuit will now apply this ruling in Troester v. Starbucks.

What the opinion means for employers

The decision leaves open the possibility of off-the-clock work that is so brief or irregular for which employers could not be reasonably expected to compensate employees. For example, work that takes only a few seconds or that an employee is only asked to do once a month (and not every shift) could potentially still be considered trifling.

In light of the ruling, California employers should evaluate whether they regularly require workers to perform small amounts of work off the clock and if so, they should pay for that work. Also, while the decision did not speak to rounding practices, employers who round employees' time up or down should evaluate their practices to make sure they are rounding to the smallest increment possible and that their rounding practices are evenhanded such that they neither favor the employer nor the employee to a significant degree.

If you have questions about the new California de minimis law or your rounding practices, our experienced attorneys here at Duggan Law are available to help to ensure employers of all sizes are compliant with state and federal laws.

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