Human Resources News & Insights

When doing more with less becomes an FLSA violation

If you’re like most firms, you’re asking both employees and managers to do more with less these days. But did you know that you could run afoul of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) by doing so?

Here are the details of a recent court case:

Linda Heyen worked as an assistant manager for Safeway Inc. Due to a series of extenuating circumstances, Heyen was also required to handle a number of tasks around the store while she was also supervising employees, including:

  • handling bookkeeping, checking, general merchandising, sales forecasts and the master budget
  • hiring and training staff
  • maintaining employee files
  • disciplining employees
  • filling out salary performance paperwork
  • responding to management emails
  • preparing reports
  • scheduling empoloyees
  • conducting evaluations
  • bagging
  • stocking shelves, and
  • greeting customers.

Managers at the company, including Heyen, complained that it was impossible to get all their work done due to the shortage of employees. Heyen consistently worked 15-hour days, and she finally asked to be moved to another store.

Exempt or non-exempt?

Heyen was eventually fired, and she turned around and sued, claiming that the company had misclassified her as exempt.

Safeway disagreed. It said that Heyen could do both exempt and non-exempt work at the same time and still remain exempt. Company officials also argued that although Heyen may have been performing non-exempt tasks, it had no reason to believe she was since she never told anyone. In other words, the company assumed she was only doing exempt work.

The court disagreed on both counts. First, the only time multi-tasking will count as exempt is if the non-exempt task involves supervising staff or its beneficial to the manager’s department. The court said there was a legitimate question about whether Heyen’s extra tasks did either. Second, the court said the company had every reason to believe Heyen was doing both exempt and non-exempt work based on her complaints about being overworked and the company’s unrealistic expectations for its managers’ performance.

Dan Handman, writing for the California Workplace Advisor, had the takeaway for HR:

Because the court’s opinion is so distanced from the reality of modern work life, it raises more questions than it answers. Do you know whether your managers are regularly performing non-exempt tasks in addition to their everyday responsibilities? Why are they doing them? Do they complain about it? Do you see it? If not, do you expect that they are doing it? All of these questions are now significant based on the Heyen decision.

To be sure, there are some proactive measures that you can take to guard against a claim like this. For example, your managerial employees should be informed that if their actual duties ever deviate from their job descriptions, they need to let someone know. And you can have a policy which states that managerial employees are not expected to perform non-managerial tasks except in unusual circumstances. But, at the end of the day, you need to keep a watchful eye on your managers to make sure that they are doing what they are supposed to do and that their work is truly managerial in nature.

The case is Heyen v. Safeway Inc.

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