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Smartphones - 24/7 Access: When are employees off the clock?

With instant access to all things via smartphones and the internet, it has become increasingly easy for employees and employers to stay connected to work all the time. Smartphone access and being constantly connected is part of our professional make-up, and necessary to keep pace with the speed of the information highway. Right? Connectivity is firmly woven into everyday business practices but at what price?

If your company issues smartphones or similar devices to all or some of its employees so they can stay in touch, checking emails or responding to phone calls after-hours or on the weekends; your company could be at risk for ‘off-the-clock’ lawsuits.  The Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) requires employers to compensate non-exempt employees overtime pay for any time worked beyond a 40-hour workweek. Exempt employees (so long as they are classified correctly), are the exception. Under FLSA failure to pay an employee wages and overtime due will result in serious fines, and is a growing area of class action law suits.

Being smart about smartphones usage by employees is crucial. It is essential to have a clear electronic-use policy that outlines specific guidelines explaining work hours and use of any such device (laptops, tablets and phones). As an employer you are financially responsible for work hours that are requested and voluntary. Which means if a non-exempt employee is using a smartphone (company issued or personal) outside of work hours, for work purposes – even when not required or requested – the company is responsible for overtime pay to that employee for the hours worked. So, an electronic use policy needs to be very specific about what is permitted and what is prohibited.

Of course it is not enough to have a policy in place, it must be enforced. To enforce such a policy that applies to work performed after-hours and off-premises, the employer must institute a strong system of reporting and monitoring the activity. This could include a specific time-recording tool, as well as an essential versus non-essential activity list, which could temper an employee’s overtime.

There is a “de minimus” rule, which has been adopted in several federal court proceedings that classifies minimal time spent checking or replying to emails or texts as not compensable.  However, if the employee tracks and presents the aggregate of these de minimus actions, the time often becomes comprehensive enough for an overtime claim.

Having the correct system and policy in place to control smartphone usage is no longer an afterthought; it is an essential element of employment and a critical policy. Smartphones have changed the way we work, and as in many areas of business, technology surpasses our ability to keep up with the changes it creates. If you don’t have an electronic-use policy in place, we recommend you make it priority number one for the HR Department. Have it reviewed by an attorney, educate your staff and enforce its rights and restrictions.

Cynthia L. Effinger, an Associate of the firm, joined McBrayer, McGinnis, Leslie & Kirkland, PLLC in 2012. Ms. Effinger has a broad range of legal experience gained through 13 years of practice throughout the Commonwealth of Kentucky where her clients conduct business. Ms. Effinger’s practice is concentrated in the areas of employment law and commercial litigation. She also has experience with First Amendment litigation, securities litigation and complex litigation. Ms. Effinger can be reached at ceffinger@mmlk.com or at (502) 327-5400, ext. 2316.

This article is intended as a summary of newly enacted federal law and does not constitute legal advice.

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