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Employer alert: Is California Supreme Court wage decision a harbinger for Washington employers?

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In July, the California Supreme Court issued a decision in the Troester v. Starbucks case that may have wage and hour implications for Washington employers.

David Troester was a shift supervisor for one of Starbucks’ Los Angeles locations. Starbucks required him to clock out on all closing shifts before initiating the store’s computer “close store procedure” on a separate computer terminal in the back office. The procedure transmitted daily data to Starbuck’s corporate headquarters.

After completing this task, he activated the store alarm, exited the store, and locked the front door. He then walked his co workers to their cars, in compliance with Starbucks’ policy, along with sometimes waiting with employees for their rides to show up, or brought in patio furniture mistakenly left outside. These closing tasks took him 4 to 10 additional minutes per day.

Troester filed a class action claim against Starbucks claiming these tasks constituted “hours worked” for which he and other similarly situated employees should have been paid.

Starbucks paid Troester minimum wage($8.00). Over his 17 months of employment this unpaid time amounted to a little less than 13 hours, which had a total value of $102.67.

Troester filed his claim in August 2012 and after considerable legal wrangling the California Supreme Court concurred this extra time was compensable and that the federal “de minimis doctrine” under the Fair Labor Standards Act did not apply under California law.

Given the similarities between California and Washington wage and hour laws, it would not be surprising for a Washington court to come to a similar conclusion under the facts presented in this case.

The federal courts have applied the “de minimis” doctrine (which means “the law does not concern itself with trifles”) in some cases to excuse the payment of wages for small amounts of otherwise compensable time if an employer can demonstrate that the bits of time are administratively difficult to record.

While states cannot offer less protection than federal laws, they may offer greater protections than federal laws. Both Washington and California courts and administrative agencies have adopted this principle in applying our wage and hour rules and regulations.

Additionally, similar to Washington courts, California courts have held wage and hour laws should be liberally construed in favor of employees.

The California wage statute states, in the relevant part, that employees should “be paid for all hours worked”.

Washington law stipulates an employee should be paid for “all hours worked,” which is defined as “all hours during which an employee is authorized or required, known or reasonably believed, by the employer to be on duty on the employer’s premises or at a prescribed work place.”

Starbucks unsuccessfully tried to argue that the extra time Troester spent after logging out was “de minimis” and administratively difficult to track. The Court did not agree and held Starbucks liable for the extra time.

Interestingly, the court said the amount owed Troester ($102.67) was not “de minimis” because it was enough to pay a utility bill, buy a week’s worth of groceries (not in my household) or cover a month’s bus fare. These comments demonstrate how far the court went to justify its decision. Keep in mind this $102.67 was for 17 months of extra time or only $6.04 per month.

Also, the court indicated keeping track of these small amounts of time was not necessarily administratively difficult due to technological advances that could help employers track small amounts of time or that employers could develop customized time-tracking tools or could restructure the work week to prevent an employee from working before or after clocking out, or could even reasonably estimate and pay employees for the extra time worked.

Washington employers should take note as our wage and hour laws are similar to California wage and hour laws. If an employee is doing work that benefits the employer outside of normal working hours (i.e., taking cell phone calls, responding to text messages or engaging in other minor tasks), this is likely to be viewed as compensable time and should be tracked or reasonably estimated and paid.


Gil Sparks is Of Counsel with the law firm of Ogden Murphy Wallace and has been practicing management side employment and labor law for over 29 years. If you have any questions about this article or other employment law principles, send Gil an email at gsparks@omwlaw.com or call 662-1954.