blackberryAuthored by Alex Passantino

For years, questions have been swirling around the intersection of 21st Century technology and the Depression-era law that governs whether and how an employee should be paid for the time spent using that technology.  Regular readers of this blog may recall that this summer, the House Committee on Education and Workforce’s Subcommittee on Workforce Protections held a hearing on this very issue.  The hearing was titled “The Fair Labor Standards Act: Is It Meeting the Needs of the Twenty-First Century Workplace?” and Seyfarth Shaw’s Richard Alfred testified about the explosion of wage and hour litigation.

In a possible foreshadowing of continued legislative activity, the Congressional Research Service (CRS)* recently issued a report entitled “The Fair Labor Standards Act, Overtime Compensation, and Personal Data Assistants”.  The report focuses on “[t]he increased use of personal data assistants (PDAs) and smartphones by employees outside of a traditional work schedule” and “questions about whether such use may be compensable under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).”  It goes on to identify the critical issue:  “As PDAs and smartphones provide employees with mobile access to work email, clients, and co-workers, as well as the ability to create and edit documents outside of the workplace, it may be possible to argue that non-exempt employees who perform work-related activities with these devices should receive overtime if such activities occur beyond the 40-hour workweek.”

The report describes the difficulty in applying the FLSA’s definition of “employ” – “to suffer or permit to work” – in the absence of a definition of “work.”  It discusses a number of Supreme Court decisions addressing the concepts of work, de minimis, and compensable time, but notes that no Supreme Court – indeed, few courts at all – have addressed these issues in the context of PDAs and smartphones.  Ultimately, the report concludes that the determination of compensability for PDA or smartphone use by non-exempt employees will be based on the same factors courts consider in other “work” cases:  “First, does use of a PDA or smartphone require physical or mental exertion? Second, is the use of a PDA or smartphone controlled or required by the employer? Finally, is the use of a PDA or smartphone necessarily and primarily for the benefit of the employer and his business?”

The politics of the FLSA – particularly as an election year approaches – make it difficult to know how (or even whether) Congress will address this issue.  In the meantime, however, employers should exercise great care when providing non-exempt employees with PDAs, smartphones, or other methods of remote e-mail access.  In a wide variety of circumstances, an employee’s use of this technology may be compensable work time under the FLSA.  Although the long-anticipated landslide of “smartphone cases” has not yet materialized, an employer is merely a plaintiff away from learning about these issues on a first-hand basis.  Review your policies, practices, and procedures related to the use of technology by non-exempt employees.

We will continue to keep you advised of developments on this issue.

* The CRS works for the United States Congress, providing policy and legal analysis to committees and Members of both the House and Senate, regardless of party affiliation.