When equipment must start up, when does work begin?

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in Compensation and Benefits,Human Resources

Q. When our employees come in to work, they spend part of their time getting their equipment running. Do we need to compensate them for that time?

A. Preliminary steps to prepare equipment for work almost certainly count as time worked for nonexempt employees. These are considered principal activities that primarily benefit the employer. A number of different courts have found these preliminary activities compensable:  

  • Turning on switches for lights and machinery
  • Powering up and testing an x-ray machine integral to taking x-rays
  • Distributing material to work benches or getting machines ready for operation

Once employees engage in such activities, the workday has started—and under the continuous workday rule, any subsequent walking, waiting, or other time generally must be counted as time worked.

The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) has recently begun focusing on time spent by employees turning on computers and pulling up computer applications, especially in call centers. If employees turn on computers and then spend time sitting there waiting or visiting with co-workers while computer applications boot up, the DOL’s position is that all such time is compensable. If employees log into a time-recording system after these initial activities, an employer could be systemically missing the first several minutes of employees’ work time every day.

The DOL takes the position that employees are engaged to wait while their computers boot up and work applications load. Ponder this question: If an employee regularly spends seven or eight minutes a day waiting for computer systems to start so she can log into the timekeeping system, does that time—amounting to more than 30 minutes a week—constitute compensable work time?

Employers must make sure their time-recording systems are capable of capturing this work time.

Lately, more private lawsuits have challenged the time hourly employees spend booting up computers before starting work. In Seward v. International Business Machine Corp. (7:08-cv-03976-KMK, S.D.N.Y., 2012), a class of hourly workers sued in federal court in New York, arguing that they were not paid for “boot up” time that had to be performed prior to the start of the shift because of a policy that employees had to be “call ready” at the beginning of the shift.

In March, the district court granted the defendant’s motion to decertify the conditional class on the grounds that the evidence established only a few random supervisors had required employees to perform these tasks prior to the start of their shift. However, this ruling occurred only after the defendant spent three years conducting class discovery.

A lack of concise written policies and properly trained managers can result in expensive and time-consuming off-the-clock claims. Usually where one employee claims an off-the-clock violation, other employees are in the same or similar situation.

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