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The BlackBerry affliction

August 12th, 2009  |  Lisa Milam-Perez

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A prominent theme in the employment law e-press this week, as the healthcare reform storm raged on in townhall yelling matches across the country, is the darkening clouds gathering in the form of BlackBerry-inspired wage-hour suits. These seemingly disparate topics are not unrelated.

Back in May, the month when dreams of a two-week reprieve from the office typically begin to surface, the partner of a London law firm told his colleagues they were to be within reach by e-mail even while on vacation. An “out of office” auto-reply saying an attorney is unavailable is acceptable only in rare circumstances, he said, such as when a lawyer is on an international flight in a different time zone. The story, posted in the online ABA Journal, generated quite a stir. “A lawyer should be on-call 24/7? That’s a prescription for an alcoholic or even suicidal lawyer!,” wrote one respondent. “The good thing about being so available is that it results in premature death of the lawyer,” commented another.

The suck-it-up types were represented as well: “We all know when we sign up for BigLaw (and the paycheck that comes with it) we’ve signed a pact with the devil and we shouldn’t be all that surprised when Ol’ Scratch comes back to collect his debt. If you don’t appreciate that kind of treatment, go get another job.”

But here’s the thing: It’s not just the high-paid law firm lawyer who is expected to be at beck and call. Employees with much lower salaries and far less prestige face these demands today as well. Thus, the BlackBerry “problem.” It’s the next wave of wage-hour litigation: suits by nonexempt workers seeking pay for time spent answering BlackBerrys, responding to emails—simply being on an ever-shorter electronic leash—while ostensibly off the clock.

Certainly there is cause for concern about liability, given the growing use of these electronic devices and the ever-expanding workday. While such tasks may seem de minimis, the Department of Labor says even 10 minutes of work is substantial enough to count as compensable. The law on this issue is still developing; however, employers would be wise to follow the sage advice of counsel: Issue BlackBerrys to exempt employees only. Failing that, as to nonexempt workers:

  • Forbid the use of BlackBerrys or company email outside of normal working hours, or require a manager’s approval before doing so.
  • Require employees to promptly report time spent after hours on work-related emails or calls to ensure that time is promptly recorded and properly paid.
  • Discipline employees who don’t adhere to these policies.

And know these tips will not prevent liability for paying employees who, you have reason to know, will stay wired after hours nonetheless.

Back to healthcare reform. Employers are paring back coverage, increasing employee contributions or, increasingly, scrapping healthcare benefits altogether. Facing spiraling costs, many employers also have heeded the clarion call of “wellness.” Maybe they’ve started a lunchtime walking program. Monetary incentives for weight loss. Perhaps even issued a no-smoking edict.

But here’s something else to consider: The more time spent on leisure activities, the better a person’s health tends to be, according to research just published by CCH sister company, Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. The study found that adults with the most time spent in a variety of leisure activities had lower blood pressure, waist circumference, body mass index and cortisol measurements, all markers of good health. That’s something to ponder when you pass out the BlackBerrys—regardless of whether overtime pay will come due.

Employment attorneys often bemoan that the FLSA—with its aversion to comp time and flexible scheduling, its unwieldy definitions of who is nonexempt—is simply ill-suited to today’s 24/7, BlackBerry-buzzing world of work. But the statute’s purpose, when enacted in 1938, was to ensure working conditions deemed necessary “for health, efficiency, and general well-being of workers.” Perhaps those legislators were onto something.