California has broken with federal precedent once again in favor of its state employees, rejecting application of the Fair Labor Standard Act’s de minimis rule in a lawsuit seeking recovery of unpaid wages under California state law. Under the de minimis doctrine, employers are excused, in some circumstances, from paying employees under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) for small amounts of otherwise compensable time worked when that time is administratively difficult to track. The California Supreme Court held last week in Troester v. Starbucks Corporation, that the de minimis doctrine does not apply to claims for unpaid wages under California state law where an employer requires its employees to work small amounts of time off the clock on a regular basis or as a regular feature of the job.
The plaintiff in Troester, a non-exempt Starbucks employee, brought a class action for uncompensated time spent in closing down the store at the end of the day. He alleged that after clocking out, he was required to (1) use another computer to transmit data to Starbucks’ corporate headquarters; (2) activate the alarm and lock the door; and (3) walk other employees to their cars under Starbucks’ policy. Additionally, he occasionally had to re-open the store for employees to retrieve items, wait for employees’ rides to arrive, and bring in store patio furniture that was mistakenly left outside. His lawsuit sought compensation under California law for time spent in these tasks, which amounted to several minutes per day.
Starbucks relied upon the de minimis doctrine in arguing that it was not required to compensate plaintiff for the disputed time. The federal district court agreed, and applied the FLSA’s de minimis doctrine in dismissing plaintiff’s state law claims. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit sought guidance from the California Supreme Court on the question of whether the FLSA’s de minimis doctrine applies to claims brought under California law, or whether any similar doctrine excuses California employers from compensating employees for small amounts of time that are administratively difficult to track.
Recently, the California Supreme Court issued its decision, concluding that the de minimis doctrine did not excuse payment under the facts presented. While the court declined to determine whether there may ever be circumstances under which a California employer may be excused from compensating employees for very small amounts of working time, it rejected application of the de minimis doctrine where, as here, the employer “requires its employees to work minutes off the clock on a regular basis or as a regular feature of the job.”
The court emphasized that California’s wage orders are applied liberally in favor of employees, and even minimal time can be important to ordinary workers:
[A] few extra minutes of work each day can add up. According to the Ninth Circuit, Troester is seeking payment for 12 hours and 50 minutes of compensable work over a 17-month period, which amounts to $102.67 at a wage of $8 per hour. That is enough to pay a utility bill, buy a week of groceries, or cover a month of bus fares. What Starbucks calls “de minimis” is not de minimis at all to many ordinary people who work for hourly wages.
The court recognized that its rejection of the de minimis doctrine cast a burden on employers, but reasoned that “employers are in a better position than employees to devise alternatives that would permit the tracking of small amounts of regularly occurring work time.” The court identified restructuring work, employing new technologies for timekeeping, and reasonably estimating lost time as potential solutions.