June 19, 2019

by Ava Freund and Imad Elias

Are Employers Always Required to Compensate Employees for Minimal Off-the-Clock Work?

The California Supreme Court recently ruled that California employers are required to pay employees for performing routine off the clock closing tasks, even if it only takes a few minutes to complete them.

The court’s ruling was rendered in the case of Troester vs. Starbucks, brought by Plaintiff Douglas Troester on behalf of himself and a class of other Starbucks managerial employees. The plaintiffs routinely spent a few extra minutes of unpaid work performing store closing tasks after clocking out. Starbucks successfully argued at trial that Troester’s uncompensated time was so minimal, it did not have to compensate him according to the Federal “De Minimis doctrine” defense. The De Minimis doctrine is an established federal law defense allowing employers to avoid payment of wages for difficult to record and minimal off-the-clock employee work. Plaintiffs appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. The Appellate court then asked the California Supreme Court to determine whether employers are entitled to apply the Federal “de minimis” defense in wage claims that allege violation of California, not Federal, labor laws.

The Supreme Court rejected Starbucks’ argument requesting application of the Federal De Minimis doctrine to California Labor laws. The court found no support for its adoption in the texts or history of the California Labor Code and Wage Orders.

For Mr. Troester, who worked for Starbucks from mid-2009 to October 2010 at the then minimum wage rate of $8/hour, just a few minutes of regularly performing store closing tasks at the end of each shift added up to almost 13 hours of unpaid hours worked, or $102.67 of unpaid wages. In writing the court’s unanimous opinion, Justice Liu, stated “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 Troester decision should be tempered by the court’s perception of Starbucks as a large, sophisticated employer, fully able to devise a method for keeping track of routine off the clock work. This may not be the case for smaller employers with less resources. In any event, if you are an hourly employee and your employer regularly makes you perform small tasks without compensating you for your time, request a free consultation from the Law Offices of Mann & Elias.