News Economic Justice

California Court Says Starbucks Must Pay for Off-the-Clock Work. The Fallout Could Affect ‘A Lot of Jobs.’

Nicole Knight

Sylvia Allegretto, a labor economist, said low-wage workers "are already having a hard time making ends meet. So the idea they're performing labor for free is disconcerting."

Starbucks and other employers in California must pay workers for the minutes they spend on work-related duties after they clock out, the California Supreme Court decided Thursday.

The court held in a unanimous decision that workers should be paid for off-the-clock work tasks, such as setting a store alarm, locking up, and walking co-workers to their cars.

The decision marks a victory for low-wage workers, said Sylvia Allegretto, a labor economist and co-chair of the Center on Wage and Employment Dynamics at the University of California, Berkeley.

“A lot of the jobs that are going to be affected by this [decision] are service and retail jobs,” she told Rewire.News. These workers “are already having a hard time making ends meet. So the idea they’re performing labor for free is disconcerting.”

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CalChamber warned its members on Friday to brace for an upswing in new wage and hour claims. 

A Starbucks spokesperson told Rewire.News the company was “disappointed” and is pursuing an appeal in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The case was brought in 2012 by Douglas Troester, a former Starbucks shift supervisor making $8 an hour. Troester argued that Starbucks’ policy of requiring off-the-clock work violated state labor codes by failing to pay him to close the store, turn off computers and lights, and activate the alarm. Troester sought payment for 12 hours and 50 minutes of work over a 17-month period. 

Troester initially lost in federal court. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit asked the high court to wade into an obscure federal doctrine known as the de minimis standard, which essentially excuses employers that fail to compensate workers for small amounts of difficult-to-track time. The high court rejected the doctrine, writing “federal doctrine does not represent the law of California.”

In tallying Troester’s claim for unpaid time, the court found a few minutes of work each day “can add up.”

“That is enough to pay a utility bill, buy a week of groceries, or cover a month of bus fares,” Justice Goodwin Liu wrote for the California Supreme Court. “What Starbucks calls ‘de minimis’ is not de minimis at all to many ordinary people who work for hourly wages.”

Los Angeles in 2015 earned the distinction of being named the U.S. wage theft capital: A survey of people who work for low wages found that wage theft denied workers $26.2 million in pay every week across the city. Researchers found that more than 654,000 workers in L.A. County experienced at least one pay-based violation in any given week. 

Bryan Lazarski, a Los Angeles attorney who represents workers in wage claims, told the Associated Press he expects a wave of new lawsuits to “test the boundary of what this case says” to determine how much time spent on off-the-clock tasks is enough to get paid.

Starbucks’ appeal is pending in the Ninth Circuit.

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