Employees frequently stay connected with work through company issued smart phones.  Smart phones, like the iPhone, Blackberry, and Treo, allow employees to have access to their work e-mails, calenders and contacts –in addition to making and receiving calls.  In my practice, a smart phone is incredibly useful in staying in touch with my client’s needs when I’m in court or out  of the office.  However, with every advance in technology, come employment law challenges.

As recently reported in the WSJ.com, several lawsuits have been filed seeking damages for unpaid work time spent reading and responding to e-mails and customer complaints outside of regular business hours.  For example,T-Mobile USA Inc. was sued in July 2009 by three current and former employees for unpaid working time claiming they were required to use their T-Mobile issued phones to read and respond to message outside of working hours. (View the Complaint here).  In March 2009, CB Richard Ellis Group, Inc. was sued by a maintenance worker for unpaid work time after hours that included reading and responding to e-mails on his company-issued smart phone.  (View the Complaint here). 

Jon Hyman at the Ohio Employer’s Law Blog argues that even if employees use smart phones for isolated and sporadic short-term reading and responding to business e-mails, that time is not necessarily compensable time.   Hyman argues that:

Most messages can be read in a matter of seconds or, at most, a few short minutes.  The Fair Labor Standards Act calls such time de minimus, and does not required compensation for it.  "Insubstantial or insignificant periods of time beyond the scheduled working hours, which cannot as a practical administrative matter be precisely recorded for payroll purposes, may be disregarded."

Hyman’s point is a good one; however, can this time be precisely recorded for payroll purposes?  Redwood Technologies, for example, has a smart phone application (Momentum) that allows the user to capture time spent reading and responding to e-mails and time spent on the telephone.  It allows the user to allocate that time to different client accounts.  Although this same technology could be used by employers to capture the time nonexempt, hourly employees spend reading and responding to e-mails.  This may not resolve the administrative impracticality of determining which e-mails are personal or business related, I suppose that there are applications out there which would allow an employer to capture this time if it was so inclined. 

While is remains to be seen whether the time spent reviewing and responding to e-mails outside of normal business hours will be recoverable in an FLSA lawsuit, some commentators have suggested implementing polices to either pay employees for this time or to prohibit (by policy) employees from using company issued smart phones outside of working hours.  The following is a menu of options employers may consider in deciding how to deal with the issue of providing company issued smart phones to nonexempt, hourly employees. 

  • Do not provide nonexempt, hourly employees with company issued phones capable of reading or responding to e-mail (i.e., smart phones). 
  • Purchase a technology solution that captures the amount of time the user spends reading and responding to e-mail and pay nonexempt employees for that time.
  • If the employer does not intend to pay for this off-hours review of e-mails, it should clearly set out its expectations that employees should not read and review those messages outside regular work hours.  For example, implement policies that prohibit employees from reading and responding to e-mails outside of regular working hours; require employees to leave company issued smart-phones at work; require employees to program the smart phones to turn themselves off during non-working hours. 
  • Limit the employees that are provided with company issued cellphones to those who have a legitimate business need to be routinely contacted outside of business hours and limit that outside contact for matters where it is necessary.
  • Pay employees who submit time for the nonbusiness hours review of e-mail and then discipline the employee for violating the employer’s policy prohibiting business use of company cellphones outside working hours (if the employer has implemented such a policy).

If the lawsuits referenced above conclude with successful results for the employees (or in class certification), employers can expect to see many more of these kinds of cases filed.