Close up of lights on police carIf a tree falls in the forest but there is no one around to hear, does it make a sound? If a non-exempt worker answers an e-mail message after hours on her Blackberry but fails to put in for overtime, has she performed compensable work? While I’m not aware of any firm legal authority on the first question, a recent ruling by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois offers a detailed and instructive analysis of the second. 

In Allen v. City of Chicago, a group of 51 of current and former officers in the Chicago Police Department’s Bureau of Organized Crime (“BOC”)  alleged that the City willfully violated the FLSA by requiring them to use their Blackberry devices for work-related communications while they were off duty without compensation. 


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Angry man with cellphoneQ. Our company provides remote access to e-mail for all employees, and some of our hourly employees carry iPhones and Blackberries with access to their work e-mail. Most non-exempt employees only work during regular business hours, but some will occasionally check and respond to e-mail after hours or on weekends. Do we need to pay employees for this time? If so, how do we track it?

A. Yes, employees need to be paid for time spent reading or responding to work-related e-mail. If this occurs only sporadically and the time involved is truly de minimus – for example, if the employee occasionally types out “Thanks” or “OK” in response to a short message – it may not be an issue. However, if you do not have any mechanism for employees to track and report this time, you may have no way to prove that the time spent was in fact minimal. When a disgruntled current or former employee files a complaint asserting that they worked an hour or two extra every week for three years, will you be able to prove otherwise?


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