A common practice can cause payroll headaches

Any day now, the Dept. of Labor is expected to publish a Request for Information on using electronic devices outside of scheduled work hours.  In the meantime, a federal court has weighed in on the issue.

The court said an employer didn’t have to pay overtime to employees who used their BlackBerry devices to access and respond to work-related emails, phone calls and messages, even though they did so while off duty.

In Allen v City of Chicago, nonexempt said that as a result of their off-duty BlackBerry use, they hadn’t received proper overtime pay, which in their situation was due after they worked 171 hours in a 28 day period.

The court disagreed that the employer had violated the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).  Here’s why:

4 important points

Point 1:  Some people who used their BlackBerry devices after their shifts ended didn’t submit time-due slips to ask for overtime.  They cited company culture as their reason.

That argument didn’t hold up, given that other employees had a different perception of company culture, and when Payroll received time-due slips from them, they got paid overtime.

Point 2:  A General Order and a statement employees had to sign said they’d be paid for off-duty BlackBerry use only in the limited circumstances.

Yet, according to the court, the employer hadn’t set up rigid rules, just expectations.  The General Order even included the word “guidelines”

Point 3:  Although employees provided examples of supervisors discouraging them from working overtime, that wasn’t enough to sway the court.  After all, the incidents were isolated and didn’t correspond to BlackBerry use in particular.

Also, no one had been reprimanded for turning in a time-due slip that included off-duty BlackBerry use.

Point 4:  Upper management may have pushed for reduced overtime, as the employees claimed, but the court examined the overtime data and found no decrease in the number of hours.

Overtime hours actually increased, the data proved.