When De Minimis is No Longer De Minimis

We imagine that when the folks at Starbucks asked their assistant managers to set the security alarm and lock up their stores at the end of the night, they were not thinking the employees would also be carrying a stopwatch, and logging the amount of time it took to complete those tasks.  Clearly they did not have the state of California in mind when they decided to allocate those duties to their non-exempt employees.

However, in what could be just the beginning of a multitude of lawsuits soon to be filed against employers across the Golden State, an employee who was tasked with the menial chores of locking up his store at the end of the day won a lawsuit against the coffee giant in a unanimous ruling from the California Supreme Court in Troester v. Starbucks Corporation.

Now, the closing procedure was a bit more complicated than we’ve described.  According to the decision, the plaintiff was required to initiate a Starbucks “Store Close Procedure” on a computer, which uploaded various data to corporate headquarters, and had to go through the process of locking up the store, and occasionally completing other various duties, like walking employees to their cars and bringing in patio furniture that had mistakenly been left out.  Altogether, these tasks lasted between four and ten minutes every shift.

While this might not seem like a lot of time, it all adds up.  Over the course of the period covered by the lawsuit, the time added up to a whopping 12 hours and 50 minutes, or $102.67 in wages earned.  Again, this was time earned over a long period, 17 months to be exact, but the work was measurable, it was at the request of the employer, and it was off the clock.  The California (state, not federal) court found that this time was more than de minimis under California law.

We always need to remind ourselves that employment law in California is an entirely different animal than the rest of the country.  However, California courts can also function as trend-setters for the rest of the country, and it is becoming easier and easier for employees to track their own time when they are allegedly “off the clock,” and create a record that could be used in a court of law to prove what they have not been paid.

It is important, as an employer, that you are not requiring extra work from your employees after you’ve told them to punch out.  Courts give a little leeway when it comes to additional activities, but too much work done off the clock can come back and bite an employer hard.