Supreme Court of California rules in favour of Starbucks employee in compensation case


The Supreme Court of California has ruled that a Starbucks employee, and a corresponding class of non-managerial staff, must be paid for store-closing tasks that are performed after employees have formally clocked out.

The case,¬†Troester v Starbucks, regards Douglas Troester, a former shift supervisor who worked at coffee retail chain Starbucks between mid 2009 and October 2010. Troester filed a class action complaint in August 2012, arguing that he and other non-managerial staff should be compensated for store-closing tasks that had to be completed after employees clocked off from work. This is due to the fact that Starbucks used different computer software for clocking out and for initiating the close store procedure, which includes transmitting daily sales, profit and loss and sending store inventory data to Starbuck’s head office, activating the store alarms, locking the front door and walking employees to their cars.

During his 17-month period of employment, Troester’s unpaid working time totaled an estimated 12 hours and 50 minutes. Paid at the then-applicable minimum wage of $8 (¬£6.10) an hour, this equates to $102.67 (¬£78.30) of unpaid wages, exclusive of any penalties or other remedies. The closing tasks that Troester performed added between four and 10 minutes to his working hours each day.

In March 2014, the district court granted Starbucks’ motion for a summary judgement. This was to explore whether the federal Fair Labor Standards Act’s de minimis doctrine would apply to claims for unpaid wages under various sections of the Californian Labor Code.

The de minimis doctrine is an application of the rule that the law should not concern itself with trifles, and in this instance excuses the payment of wages for small amounts of otherwise compensable time, due to this time being administratively difficult to record.

The district court ruled in favour of Starbucks, concluding that the uncompensated time was de minimis, and therefore did not have to be paid. Troester appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which recognised that the de minimis doctrine had never been addressed in relation to wage claims brought under Californian law. The Supreme Court was therefore asked to provide an opinion.

The Supreme Court of California ruled in favour of Troester, finding that the federal rule permitting employers under some circumstances to require employees to work as much as 10 minutes without pay is less protective than the Californian wage order that states that an employee must be paid for all hours worked or for any work completed beyond eight hours a day. The Supreme Court further found that neither the Labor Code statutes nor any wage order have been amended to recognise a di minimis exception.

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The opinion documentation stated: “In light of the wage order’s remedial purpose requiring a liberal construction, its directive to compensate employees for all time worked, the evident priority it accorded that mandate notwithstanding customary employment arrangements, and its concern with small amounts of time, we conclude that the de minimis doctrine has no application under the circumstances presented here.

“An employer that requires its employees to work minutes off-the-clock on a regular basis or as a regular feature of the job may not evade the obligation to compensate the employee for that time by invoking the de minimis doctrine. As the facts here demonstrate, a few extra minutes of work each day can add up. What Starbucks calls ‘de minimis’ is not de minimis at all to many ordinary people who work for hourly wages.”