Should You Be Paid Overtime for Answering Late Night Work Email?

This was the question posed by Lauren Weber of The Wall Street Journal in her article, "Can You Sue the Boss for Making You Answer Late-Night Email?"

The author cites Pew Research Center studies that report 44% of internet users regularly did some job tasks outside the workplace. While smartphone technology has greatly increased the availability of workers, it hasn’t necessarily increased their overtime. While the vast majority of white-collar workers are exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act and Minimum Wage Act, new Department of Labor rules are expected to change this.

In Washington, what constitutes “work” is the often a major dispute in minimum wage and overtime cases. “Work” is not defined in the MWA or the FLSA, but the courts have defined work as activity or inactivity that is requested or allowed by the employer and that is pursued predominantly for the employer’s benefit, even though it confers a benefit on the employee.

See: Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad Co. v. Muscoda Local 123, 321 U.S. 590, 598, 64 S. Ct. 698 (1944) (defining work as “physical or mental exertion (whether burdensome or not) controlled or required by the employer and pursued necessarily and primarily for the benefit of the employer and his business”).

The Washington Administrative Code defines “work” under WAC 296-126-002(8), as “hours worked” as “all hours during which the employee is authorized or required by the employer to be on duty on the employer’s premises or at a prescribed workplace.”[1]

Several notable companies have been sued for failing to pay overtime for smartphone use after hours, namely Verizon, T-Mobile and Black and Decker. Set for trial in August 2015, a Chicago police sergeant has filed suit against the City of Chicago alleging that he was required to respond to emails and text messages while off duty, but without receiving overtime.

While there have been relatively few of these types of smartphone/after-hours cases, this may change following revision of the Department of Labor rules expected for release and public comment any day now.

[1] Applied in Stevens v. Brink’s Home Security, Inc., 162 Wn.2d 42, 48-50, 169 P.3d 473(2007), Mechanics were engaged in “work” when they drove company vans from their home to the first customer at shift’s start and drove from the last customer to home at shift’s end.

The “Real” Price of Nails and Blueberries for Workers

Last Sunday, The New York Times uncovered how consumers can unknowingly play a part in wage theft of exploited workers. Reporter Sarah Maslin Nir was having her nails done one day and asked the salon worker what her schedule is like. The manicurists stated that she works 24 hours a day, with naps, 6 days a week and not paid minimum wage. Maslin’s research uncovered that the price of nails in New York City was far less than the national average and began to connect the dots between exploited immigrants and the real price of a manicure.

Federal Law requires that employees be paid minimum wage[1] for all hours worked.[2] However, sometimes employers pay employees using more elaborate forms such as a “piece rate” or a “salary”. This can lead to issues for employees where the “piece rate” falls below the state or federal minimum wage. For example, overtime is calculated at time-and-a-half the “regular rate”. The regular rate must include all compensation, other than overtime compensation. See: Hisle v. Todd Pac. Shipyards, 151 Wn.2d 853, 862-63, 93 P.3d 108 (2004). This is then divided by the total hours worked during the workweek, so that the pay can be expressed as an hourly rate on which the 50% overtime premium can be calculated. Alternatively, employees can be paid a “salary”, but when divided by the number of hours the employee works and the per hour rate falls below the minimum wage, an illegal practice occurs.

The New York Times' article highlights how the price of many consumer goods or services do not reflect the real price of the good or service. For example, the Washington Supreme Court is likely to issue their ruling on if or how fruit pickers in Eastern Washington should be paid for rest breaks. Washington’s law requires a 10 minute rest break for each four hours worked under WAC 296-126-092(4), however Sakuma Farms employees paid per basket or bushel complain of never receiving pay for their rest. A new ruling that mandates this pay may have a financial impact to farmers and consumers alike, where the price of blueberries rises to the real price.

[1] The 2015 Federal Minimum Wage is $7.25.

[2] “Work” is not defined by the Washington Minimum Wage Act or the Fair Labor Standards Act, and is defined through case law as that which is pursued predominantly for the employer’s benefit, even though it confers a benefit on the employee. See, e.g.: Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad Co. v. Muscoda Local 123, 321 U.S. 590, 598, 64 S. Ct. 698 (1944) (defining work as “physical or mental exertion (whether burdensome or not) controlled or required by the employer and pursued necessarily and primarily for the benefit of the employer and his business”).

How Come You Don’t Get Paid Overtime?

Do you remember when you were an hourly employee and you received “time and a half” for hours worked over forty? Your boss needed you to work and you needed the money. Life was good. A great exchange of extra money for your valuable time.

But now, you are older, wiser, more educated, more experienced and now paid on a “salary”. So what happens when your boss asks you to work over 40 hours? You work… but you don’t get paid.

So whatever happened to overtime pay?

Odds are high, you don’t receive overtime and aren’t required to. In fact, a study done by the Economic Policy Institute (“EPI”) reported that only 11% of American workers are required to receive overtime. This is generally because:

  1. Your position is likely “exempt” under the current definitions of executive, administrative, and professional employees[1] and
  2. Your annual income does not fall below $23,660 ($455 per week) to qualify for mandatory overtime under the Federal Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”).

The FLSA, passed in 1938, gives the Federal Department of Labor (“DOL”) authority to promulgate regulations and enforce federal labor laws. However, the last update to the overtime dollar amount threshold occurred in 1975. As a result, most businesses are able to require “overtime” be performed by the employee without extra pay.

If this strikes you as unfair, then regardless of your political affiliation, you have a friend in the White House. On March 13, 2014, President Barack Obama issued a presidential memorandum calling for revisions of the DOL’s regulations that could have a major impact on salaried workers in America. These revisions are expected this Spring.

The President has called for revisions of the exemptions for “executive, administrative, and professional employees” (often referred to as “white collar” exemptions). These exemptions, in addition to the $455 per week regulations, have been criticized widely and allowed for low-wage positions to be exempt from overtime (i.e. “Assistant Managers” or “Shift Supervisors” at popular fast food restaurants, despite performing the same or similar duties as hourly employees).

So what does this all mean to you? Well, the Economic Policy Institute equates the current $455 per week, $23,660 per annum rate to $984 a week or $51,168 in today’s dollars. Meaning, employers paying less than $984 per week, may be required to pay non-exempt employees overtime if the new regulations adjust to these amounts and definitions are updated. This could have a substantial economic impact on white collar workers either directly in the form of additional compensation for additional hours worked (or reduced hours) or indirectly through increased hiring to fulfill a previous unpaid need.

[1] These are just a few of the positions excluded from the FLSA and state Minimum Wage Acts. The Minimum Wage Act and FLSA have different minimum wage and overtime exemptions. In addition, the Minimum Wage Act does not include many of FLSA amendments, namely, amendments passed in late 1940s.

Overtime laws vary widely from state to state.  If you have questions or concerns whether you are paid appropriately, you should seek legal advice from an employment lawyer.

3 Common Myths of Wagetheft in Washington

Last November, I had the privilege of speaking alongside Federal and State Department of Labor and union leaders on the issue of wagetheft in Tacoma. I was asked to speak about my own experiences as a private attorney who represents low-wage workers recover unpaid wages and/or payment for denial of rest breaks.

What became clear during the discussion and the public’s Q&A afterward, is at least three common myths surrounding wagetheft still exist.

Myth: “I am afraid to complain to my boss because I will be fired.”
Answer: An employer is prohibited from discharging or discriminating against an employee for complaining to the employer or the government that his or her RCW 49.46 rights have been violated, for filing or about to file proceedings “under or related to RCW 49.46, or for giving testimony or being asked to testify in proceedings “under or related to” RCW 49.46.[1] The Federal Labor Standards Act also prohibits retaliation for exercising wages rights.[2]

Myth: “I can’t afford a private attorney to pursue my unpaid wages claim.”
Answer: A worker owed wages has several options. He or she may make a complaint at the Department of Labor and Industries (State/Federal), complain to their union (if applicable) or hire a private attorney. Most private attorneys, like myself are paid by the employer only in the event they recover wages for the worker. The strong Washington worker laws allow for an employee to hire a private attorney on a contingency basis.

Myth: “I am not a US Citizen, am I still entitled to wage law protection?"
Answer: The law surrounding undocumented workers is constantly changing. Washington State has made a leading effort to protect the rights of undocumented workers by preventing worker status from entering the courtroom.[3] Second, the Rules of Professional Conduct prohibit an attorney from making assertion or inquiry “about a third person’s immigration status when the lawyer’s purpose is to intimidate, coerce, or obstruct that person from participating in a civil matter.” Even the Washington State AG’s Office will not inquire as to immigration status of anyone complaining of wage theft.

[1] RCW 49.46.100(2)

[2] See: Lambert v. Ackerly, 180 F.3d 997, 1002-05 (9th Cir. 1999) (en banc decision holding that FLSA prohibits retaliation based on informal complaints to employer); Valerio v. Putnam Assoc., 173 F.3d. 35, 45 (1st Cir. 1999).

[3] In Salas v. Hi-Tech Erectors, 168 Wn.2d 664, 230 P.3d 583, the Washington State Supreme Court held it was an abuse of discretion under ER 403 to allow a jury to learn of the Plaintiff’s immigration status in awarding lost future income. The Court wrote:

Human Rights Commission Holds Free Wagetheft Workshop in Tacoma

The City of Tacoma Human Rights Commission is holding a Wagetheft Workshop for workers and victims of wagetheft tonight in Tacoma, WA. Wagetheft is a major issue both nationally and here in the Pacific Northwest. Last week’s closing of Paseo in Seattle set off a flurry of media attention and social media on the issue of exploited workers. The Human Rights Commission’s effort to educate the community on wagetheft and the remedies available through the Department of Labor & Industries and private attorneys should be applauded.

“Wagetheft” is an employer’s taking of time from the employee and not appropropriately compensating the worker for that time. Wagetheft violations can include unpaid overtime, denial of rest breaks and meal periods, improper tip sharing, misclassification etc. Wagetheft disproportionately affects low-wage workers who have rights under Washington State Law and the mirroring Federal Labor Standards Act. However, many low-wage workers have unclear immigration status, do not speak English, or are otherwise afraid to complain to their employers. Tacoma’s leading effort to address wagetheft in our community is essential to addressing the needs of working local residents.

For Questions or More Information about the Workshop, Contact:

William Yi, Tacoma Human Rights
wyi@cityoftacoma.org or (253) 591-5162

Paseo, The Workers, and The Sandwich Caught In-Between

Yesterday, hungry customers of beloved Paseo Restaurant in Seattle were met with a simple sign on restaurant doors reading

“Due to unfortunate circumstances, we are closing our doors. We appreciate all the support and loyalty you have shown us over the years. We will miss you. Thank you, The Paseo Crew.”

Paseo’s two restaurants in Fremont and Ballard, serving its famous cuban sandwich, have received national acclaim for its cheap eats cuisine and is a favorite among Seattleites.

However, local media, including the Puget Sound Business Journal, The Seattle Times, and The Stranger have reported on the possible reasons for the closing, namely, a lawsuit filed by four Paseo workers for unpaid overtime, rest-break violations, and alleged racial discrimination on September 14, 2014 in King County Superior Court (No. 14-2-24553-0 SEA). The complaint mainly alleges that employees were paid straight time wages for hours worked over 40 hours and not paid the additional 50% premium amounting to time-and-a-half. Non-exempt employees working over 40 hours per week, generally must be paid time-and-a-half their hourly rate under RCW 49.46.130.

As an attorney who regularly represents employees failing to receive wages and denied rest breaks inconsistent with the Washington Minimum Wage Act, Industrial Welfare Act and Federal Labor Standards Act, the Paseo workers’ claims, if true, are not uncommon in the restaurant industry.[1]

Workers who allege unpaid wages or denied rest breaks may file a claim at the Department of Labor & Industries or hire a private attorney. The "Dept. of L&I" may issue penalties and pressure businesses with threats to their licenses while private attorneys may seek recovery of the wages through the court system. Attorneys generally work on a contingency fee basis or recover attorneys’ fees from the other side if successful. This allows for low-wage workers to seek the services of a private attorney without the expense of hiring a lawyer by the hour.

Seattle has stepped-up efforts to address wage theft concerns by proposing new minimum-wage investigators in the Mayor’s new budget. The City of Tacoma is also making efforts to address wage theft by holding a Wage Theft Workshop for employees on November 20, 2014. For more information about the seminar, visit the City of Tacoma Human Rights Commission.

[1] See As Bad You Think It is, It’s Worse: Wage Theft Comes to America by Les Leopold published in the HUFFINGTON POST on November 11, 2014.

Sorry Kid, No Overtime for Movie Projectionists

Last week, the #1 article from Sunday's edition of The New York Times was an Op-Ed piece highlighting the antiquated Federal Labor Laws that exclude millions of workers from receiving potential overtime.

Movie Projectionists are excluded from overtime under RCW 49.46.130“Sorry kid,” movie projectionists are excluded from overtime under RCW 49.46.130

Under Federal law, employees holding perceived white-collar positions like supervisor, manager, even vice president may be exempt from overtime requirements, even though their gross hourly rate is less than $12 an hour. Even in Washington State, a forum recognized for its strong labor laws, there contains noted exceptions for “administrative” and “executive” positions. As a result, an hourly manager at McDonald's may not be entitled to overtime and other protections under the Washington State Minimum Wage Act “MWA”. Parallel exclusions under the Federal Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) include country elevator workers, newspaper delivery persons, sugar processing employees, and radio station employees. Yes, even movie projectionists are exempt from the 40-hour overtime requirements. These and other provisions of the WMA are ripe to be updated to reflect the dramatic changes to today’s workforce.