Business Week's Cover - Wage Wars

Daniel Schwartz over at the Connecticut Employment Law Blog, notes that Business Week's cover story on "Wage Wars" is not exactly breaking news (or at least should not be) for HR professionals and companies. 

He offers a few suggestions for readers in response to the article:
  • Audit your exempt employees.  Go over job descriptions and compare that with actual duties.  Sometimes "managers" are just glorified sales workers.
  • Take seriously any complaints by employees about their overtime.  If there is a problem, odds are the complaining employee isn't the only one with the problem.  And that means the potential for a class action case. 
California has been "leading" the wage and hour class action trend mentioned  in the Business Week article.  These cases have arguably been the leading types of lawsuits filed in California for over the last five years.  This is primarily due to California's unique wage and hour laws.  Employers not familiar with California law mistakenly believe that because their policies comply with the FLSA, they are in compliance with California law.  This is a costly mistake, as California's labor code is very unique, and out-of-state employers should always seek a California employment attorney's advice regarding whether the complies with California law.  For example, the following are issues that illustrate how unique California law is compared to the rest of the country:

Meal and Rest Period Penalties

This is the current favorite claim of plaintiff’s class action attorneys in California. A 2001 statute imposes substantial penalties on employers who do not comply with very technical regulations concerning the timing and duration of employee lunch and rest breaks. In general, employees must receive a 30-minute meal break (during which they must be relieved of all duty and be free to leave the premises) before they complete 5 hours of work if their shift will be longer than 6 hours for the day. Employees are entitled to a second meal break whenever their shift will be longer than twelve hours. And employees are also entitled to take paid rest periods of at least 10-minutes for every four hours of work, taken as close to the middle of each work period as possible. The aggregate liability that can result over time was apply demonstrated by a 2005 jury verdict in a meal and rest break class action against Wal-Mart that awarded over $192 million in penalties and punitive damages.

California Overtime Exemptions Are Based on “Counting Hours” Test

Like the FLSA, California law provides that various job categories are exempt from overtime, including outside salespeople, commissioned salespeople and “white collar” employees.  Employers have often defined positions on a nation-wide basis as salaried or hourly based on the definitions of exempt duties provided by the FLSA and its implementing regulations.  California law, however, frequently rejects these federal rules in favor of its own, narrower definition of exempt duties.  For example, under federal law, a position may be exempt from overtime where its “primary,” or most important job functions are exempt. In California, by contrast, the duties test is strictly quantitative — i.e., “does the employee spend more than 50% of his or her time performing exempt duties?”  If not, the position may be misclassified and substantial back overtime may be due.

Daily Overtime and Double-Time

Virtually all employers know that the FLSA requires payment of “time-and-one-half” premium pay for all hours worked beyond 40 hours in one workweek. But a surprisingly large number of employers who set up shop in California are ignorant of the fact that California also requires “time-and-a-half” overtime for all hours worked beyond eight in a single workday and for the first eight hours worked on the seventh consecutive day worked in a workweek. Unlike, the FLSA, California also requires overtime at a double-time rate for all hours worked beyond 12 hours in a single workday and for hours worked beyond eight on the seventh consecutive day worked in a single week.

Mandatory Sexual Harassment Training for Supervisors

California law requires employers with 50 or more employees to provide two hours of sexual harassment training to all supervisors once every two years. Regulations are currently being proposed to clarify the extent to which this obligation applies to supervisors who are located outside California, but supervise California employees and other issues raised by the requirement.

No “Use-It-Or-Lose-It” Vacation Policy

California treats earned, but unused vacation time, as a form of vested compensation, which cannot be forfeited and must be paid out in full at the termination of employment. So-called “use-it-or-lose-it” vacation plans, which are permissible in most other states, are therefore illegal in California.

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Daniel Schwartz - September 27, 2007 12:31 PM

Thanks for the shout-out. I definitely agree with your assessment that California has been "leading" the way with the OT lawsuits. I'm amazed at the breadth of issues you cited and it serves as a cautionary tale for any business that has employees in California, even when their headquarters are based elsewhere.

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