Articles Posted in Wages and Compensation

bonus california lawMany employers, especially in the tech / start-up world often fire an employee right before his bonus or commissions in order to avoid paying that bonus. Of course this is more likely to happen if the bonus due is significant. If there is sufficient evidence that avoiding to pay bonus was the reason or one of the reasons for termination, this can support a claim for wrongful termination in violation of public policy. This type of claim is particularly strong if (1) the employee to be terminated was a high performer (2) he was terminated for a petty reason and/or (3) the company didn’t follow its normal disciplinary, investigation and termination procedures that are in place; and (4) the termination took place right before the bonus would have been due or paid.

Many employers do not realize that bonuses earned (as opposed to discretionary bonuses) are to be treated as wages as per California Labor Code Section 200. Neisendorf v. Levi Strauss 13 & Co. (2006) 143 Cal.App.4th 509. It is also established that an employer cannot terminate an employee and refuse to pay that employee the bonus he or she earned simply because the involuntarily terminated employee was not employed on the date bonuses were paid. McCollum v. Xcare.net, Inc.,212 F.Supp.2d 1142 (N.D. Cal 2002) (employee was terminated two weeks before she would have been entitled to $75,000 in commissions); Ellis v. McKinnon Broadcasting Co. (1993) 18 Cal.App.4th 1796. 

Many comp plans provide employers with discretionary power to forfeit a bonus otherwise due. California law is clear, however, that “where a contract confers one party with discretionary power affecting the rights of the other, a duty is imposed to exercise that discretion in good faith and in accordance with fair dealing.” Locke v. Warner Brothers, Inc., 57 Cal.App.4th 354 (1997).  Therefore, if one party exercises its discretionary authority in bad faith for the purpose of frustrating the other party’s legitimate expectations, it has breached the implied covenant. Commercial Union Assurance Cos. v. Safeway Stores, Inc., 26 Cal.3d 912 (1980). In other words, an employer must have a good reason for bonuses forfeiture, if so allowed by the comp plan, and it can’t just be any reason.

california law on vacation payAn interesting case on the vacation policy issue has been ruled earlier this year by the court of appeal. Employees brought a class action suit against their employer claiming that the vacation policy that required them to work for at least one year before their right to vacation vested was illegal. The appellate court affirmed the dismissal of this case holding that the employer’s policy was not illegal, because it specifically provided that vacation pay was not earned during the first year of employment. The employees in this case claimed that the employer intentionally withheld their vested vacation pay.

The appellate court rejected Plaintiff’s argument finding that it was neither illegal not inconsistent with the existing law to impose a waiting period before entitlement to vacation pay vests. Minnick v Automotive Creations, Inc. 13 Cal.App.5th 2000 (2017). The court further emphasized that imposing a waiting time period before allowing vacation to accrue is not the same as taking away vacation which has already been earned / vested (the latter would indeed be illegal). The Minnick case also makes it clear that the language of the vacation policy is critical, and it must clearly state that vacation is not accrued until a certain period passes in order to be legal.

call center nurseCalifornia nurses will get roughly $6 million from health care giant Kaiser Permanente for time spent doing unpaid work.The payout settles a class action filed last year on behalf of 1,397 advice nurses who take calls from patients at three of the Permanente Medical Group’s call centers in Sacramento, Vallejo and San Jose. Debra Brown, Sandra Morton and Barbara Labuszewski sued in September 2016, claiming Kaiser didn’t pay them for time they spent logging in and out of call center computers before and after their shifts. Kaiser doesn’t consider call center nurses clocked in until after the log-in process is complete. Although this might sound like a minor issue, under the law these couples of minutes are compensable. A few minutes a day turn into 30 minutes a week and 26 hours a year that person is being not paid for per year. Each nurse will receive anywhere from $3,000 to $9,500 as part of the settlement. U.S. District Judge Vincent Chhabria also awarded the class’ attorneys fees in the amount of $1.8 million.

This case reminds me of a class action that ATT and other similar providers were for not paying their telephone customers service reps for the few minutes they show up early to start their computers.

The following are the key points of California law regarding entitlement to a day’s rest after working more than six consecutive days that both employees and employers should know:

  • California Labor Code sections 551 and 552 generally guarantee workers a day of rest after six days of work.
  • A day of rest is guaranteed for each workweek. An employer is not prohibited from employing workers for more than six consecutive days that stretch across more than one workweek.

employee compensation at start-upsIt’s common for start-ups in the Bay Area that are low on funding to compensate their employees by granting equity only and without providing any actual salary or hourly pay. This is a mistake that entitles any such employee in California to make a claim for unpaid wages, interest, and possibly penalties. Many start-up owners assume that just because they themselves are only compensated with equity, and their company doesn’t have the money to pay their employees, it’s fair to pay their employees with stock options only. It might or might not be the fair thing to do, but in California it’s definitely not legal.

California labor code is very clear on this – an employee should be paid for every hour of work. Stock options are not pay because they don’t have have immediate (liquid) value. The law does not exempt employers from paying wages to their employees just because they don’t have the money to pay or just because the owner doesn’t draw salary, so this is not a valid defense in a potential claim or a lawsuit for unpaid wages.

Although laws in other states allows company not to pay those employees who who hold a certain % of ownership / stock in the company, this is not the case in California – at least not yet. Therefore, start-ups should at least pay their employees minimum wage to avoid liability for non-payment of wages, regardless of whether these employees also receive stock options.

computer professional exemptionOn October 5, 2016, the Division of Labor Statistics and Research (DLSR) has announced a slight increase in the salary requirements for exempt employees under computer professional exemption. The increase is 1.3% as per California Consumer Price Index.

Thus, effective January 1, 2017, the computer software employee’s minimum hourly rate of pay (to be properly exempt) increases from $41.85 to $42.39. The minimum monthly salary exemption will increase from $7,265.43 to $7,359.88, and the minimum annual salary will increase from $87,185.14 to $88,381.55.

It’s easy to see how not complying with the above requirement can become quite costly to an employer. Here is an example to illustrate this point. Suppose the employer pays the purportedly exempt computer professional $88,000 a year instead of the required $88,381.55, and that employee worked 12 hour workday for 100 days. Arguably, exemption won’t apply because of non-compliance with the pay rate. Therefore, the employer will be liable to pay that employee as follows:

mandatory cellphone use at workIn the opening line of Cochran v. Schwan’s Home Service, Inc. (2014) the court says: “We hold that when employees must use their personal cell phones for work-related calls, Labor Code section 2802 requires the employer to reimburse them. Whether the employees have cell phone plans with unlimited minutes or limited minutes, the reimbursement owed is a reasonable percentage of their cell phone bills.”

The above holding is an important reminder to both employees and employers that employees are entitled to reimbursement of at least part or their cellphone bill when they must use their personal cellphone for work. This is true even if they are on an unlimited plan with their carrier, and the amount of calls their make does not make a difference to that bill.

intern california lawThe distinction between an internship and employee / employer relationship has been subject to much debate and litigation all over the country during the past few years. However, in California the existing law states that a worker can be classified as an intern (and not be paid) only if all of the following six requirements are satisfied:

Factor 1: Training similar to that provided at a vocational school.  

Training should be closely tied to the intern’s educational goals.  This factor is more easily met if the employer’s office or facilities provide resources not necessarily available to the intern outside of an industrial or professional setting. For instance, in once case the interns – trainees learned how to operate trains in the rail yard. The DSLE’s Opinion Letter found this factor to be satisfied when “an intern’s use of the employer’s computers, network systems, and tools to perform tasks” was “directly related to training and the educational and vocational objectives of the program.”

stock options start-ups terminated laid offOne of the more painful things that happen to employees of start-ups in San Francisco and the rest of Silicon Valley is being laid off shortly before or right before they become eligible for a stock or right before an important vesting deadline. Sometimes, employers terminate an employee specifically for that reason – to avoid giving them these stock rights. As unfair as this type of action may sound, usually it’s perfectly legal.  Most stock agreements are written in a way that does not create a binding contract. These agreement allow employers to do this lawfully, and there is not much that the terminated employee can do to not lose the stock he was looking forward to receiving.

However, this loss of stock can often be used in negotiating a severance or a better severance packager, especially if an employee is terminated days before his stocks vest, which is not uncommon. Different strategies are appropriate for negotiating a severance depending on the length of your tenure with the company, your most recent position, duties and compensation, any potential legal claims you might have against the employer, and other specific circumstances of your employment and termination.

An experienced employment attorney can guide you through how to go about negotiating a higher severance and getting the best deal you can, as you transition to your next job or the next stage in your career. Negotiating a higher severance is always a good idea for a simple reason – you have nothing to lose, and if a 10 minute conversation can result in putting a few more thousand dollars in your pocket, then why not try.

truck drivers employees independent contractorsOver the past few years, a number of cases in California regarding whether various drivers are employees or independent contractors have been reviewed by appellate courts, and many of them found drivers to be in fact employees. Garcia v Seacon Logix, Inc. (2015) is a recent case on point. In that case, the truckers transported cargo for a logistics company from the Port of Long Beach and Port of Los Angeles to warehouses and other facilities. Prior to 2008, the drivers were using their own trucks to perform the work, and it was undisputed that they were properly classified as independent contractors. However, after 2008 the employer started leasing their own newly purchased cleaner energy trucks to employees.

Three truck drivers brought a claim for reimbursement of deductions for insurance lease payments from their paycheck under Labor Code section 2822. The employer insisted that he truck drivers were still independent contractor. The court disagreed, concluding that under the California employee / independent contractor control test the drivers were now employees because (1) the drivers were obligated to use company vehicles; (2) they were required to come to work at a specific time and call if they were late or could not show up; (3) their delivery assignments were tightly controlled by the company, and they didn’t have much choice in choosing assignments, (4) the drivers were not permitted to work for other companies while they were working for the defendants; and (5)  the company could terminate the drivers’ employment at anytime without cause and without notice, which made the whole situation look all the more like a typical at-will employment rather than a contractor relationship.

Of course, besides the issues of not having typical expenses deducted from a paycheck, being determined to be an employee will mean that these truck drivers are also entitled to overtime, workers compensation insurance coverage, unemployment insurance, and other benefits of being an employee.