Labor Code Section 2802

Expense reimbursement may seem like a small issue in comparison with the other areas of liability facing California employers, but the exposure for not appropriately reimbursing employees can be substantial. In Gattuso v. Harte-Hanks Shoppers, Inc., the California Supreme Court clarified the parameters of mileage reimbursement under California law, as well as the three different methods available for employers to reimburse employees for their mileage reimbursement.  This Friday’s Five post discusses five issues employers need to know about automobile and mileage reimbursement under California law.

1. Mileage reimbursement based on IRS mileage rate is presumed to reimburse employee for all actual expenses

The IRS publishes standard mileage rates each year (and sometimes adjusts these rates during the year). The 2019 IRS mileage rate is as follows:

  • 58 cents per mile for business miles driven, up 3.5 cents from 2018
  • 20 cents per mile driven for medical or moving purposes, up 2 cents from 2018; and
  • 14 cents per mile driven in service of charitable organizations

2. Mileage reimbursement rates do not necessarily have to be set at the IRS rate, but use caution

The California Supreme Court held that the reimbursement rate can be negotiated by parties as long as it fully reimburses the employee, and the amount does not have to be set at the IRS mileage rate. The Court also warned that employee cannot waive the right to be fully reimbursed for their actual expenses:

We agree that, as with other terms and conditions of employment, a mileage rate for automobile expense reimbursement may be a subject of negotiation and agreement between employer and employee. Under section 2804, however, any agreement made by the employee is null and void insofar as it waives the employee’s rights to full expense reimbursement under [Labor Code] section 2802.

Gattuso, at 479.

3. Employees who challenge a mileage reimbursement amount set by the employer bear the burden in establishing their actual costs

If the employee challenges a predetermined amount set by the employer and agreed to by the employee, but then challenges the amount set later on, the employee bears the burden to show how the “amount that the employer has paid is less than the actual expenses that the employee has necessarily incurred for work-required automobile use (as calculated using the actual expense method), the employer must make up the difference.” Gattuso, at 479.

4. There are different methods employers can use to reimburse mileage

The Count in Gattuso explained that there are three different methods employers may use to reimburse employees mileage:

Actual expense method

In examining the different methods of reimbursement, the Supreme Court held that the actual expense method is the most accurate, but it is also the most burdensome for both the employer and the employee. Gattuso, at 478. Under the actual expense method, the parties calculate the automobile expenses that the employee actually and necessarily incurred and then the employer separately pays the employee that amount. The actual expenses of using an employee’s personal automobile for business purposes include: fuel, maintenance, repairs, insurance, registration, and depreciation.

Mileage reimbursement method

The Court recognized that employers may simplify calculating the amount owed to an employee by paying an amount based on a “total mileage driven.” Gattuso, at 479.

Under the mileage reimbursement method, the employee only needs to keep a record of the number of miles driven for job duties. The employer then multiplies the miles driven by a predetermined amount that approximates the per-mile cost of owning and operating an automobile. The Court recognized that the mileage rate agreed to between the employer and employee is “merely an approximation of actual expenses” and is less accurate than the actual expense method. It is important to note that while this amount can be negotiated, the employee still is unable to waive their right to reimbursement of their actual costs as mentioned above.

Lump sum payment method

Under the lump sum method, the employee need not submit any information to the employer about work-required miles driven or automobile expenses incurred. The employer merely pays an agreed fixed amount for automobile expense reimbursement. Gattuso, at 480. This type of lump sum payment is often labeled as a per diem, car allowance, or gas stipend.

In Gattuso, the Court made it clear that employers paying a lump sum amount have the extra burden of separately identifying and documenting the amounts that represent payment for labor performed and the amounts that represent reimbursement for business expenses.

5. Don’t forget about other expenses incurred in the “course and scope” of working

In addition to mileage, employers may also have to reimburse employees for other costs they incurred in driving their personal cars for business under Labor Code section 2802. In making the determination about whether an employee’s actions are in the “course and scope” of their job, courts examine whether the expense being sought by the employee is “not so unusual or startling that it would seem unfair to include loss or expense among other costs of the employer’s business.” Employers need to be mindful about reimbursing employees for cell phone use, printing and office supplies (if employee is required to maintain a home office or use personal printer for work), and other work-related expenses.

 

California employers need to routinely need to review their policies and practices to make sure they are complying with intricacies that may arise in their work place.  In law school, attorneys-to-be are taught to “issue spot,” and the unfortunate litigation landscape that faces California employers, business owners and their supervisors must also “issue spot” and make sure the unique aspects of California employment law are being complied with to avoid liability.  This Friday’s Five covers five issues employers should issue spot on a routine basis to help ensure compliance and reduce liability:

1. Reporting time pay

Reporting time pay is triggered when an employee is required to report for work, but is not put to work or is furnished less than half their usual or scheduled day’s work.  If this occurs, the employee needs to be paid for half the usual or scheduled day’s work, but in no event for less than two (2) hours nor more than four (4) hours, at the employee’s regular rate of pay, which cannot not be less than the minimum wage.

It is important for employers to train managers and supervisors about this requirement, so that they understand the need to pay reporting time pay, or report the instance to HR to ensure the employee receives reporting time pay if they are sent home before one-half of their shift is worked.

2. Split shift pay

A split shift is a work schedule that is interrupted by a non-paid, non-working period established by the employer that is other than a meal or rest break.  So if the employee is required to work a shift, but then asked to report to a second shift over later in the same day, the employer may be obligated to pay a split shift premium.  Again, this issue is one that front-line managers and supervisors need to be trained on to ensure that split shifts are being reported to HR or other appropriate management in the company to ensure any split shift pay obligations are being paid.

3. Expense reimbursement issues

Under Labor Code section 2802, employers need to reimburse employees for any business expenses they incur in the course of completing their work for the employer.  This basic concept sounds easy in principle, but given the technology used in today’s workplaces, there can be many areas that expose employers to liability.  For example, if employees are required to work at home, have access to the internet, print reports, or send and receive faxes, the costs for completing this work should be reimbursed by the employer.  Other areas that are often litigated are cell phone reimbursement, mileage reimbursement, and reimbursement for the costs of uniforms and safety equipment.

4. Off-the-clock claims

Employers can be held liable for unpaid wages if they knew or should have known that employees were working and not being paid for the work.  Employers should establish and regularly communicate a time keeping policy to employees and supervisors.  The policy should set forth that employees always have an open door to complain to their supervisors and other managers or human resources about missed meal and rest breaks, unpaid wages, or unpaid wages.  If employees routinely acknowledge that they understand the time keeping policy and are agreeing to record their time through the employer’s system, this can go a long way in defending any off-the-clock claims.

5. On-Call time

Even though employees are traveling to a work site or even sleeping, if the employee is under the control of the employer, the employer may have to pay them for being on-call.  For example, the California Supreme Court held that security guards who were required to reside in a trailer provided by the employer at construction worksites would still need to be paid for the time they slept while on-call.  In that case, during weekdays the guards were on patrol for eight hours, on call for eight hours, and off duty for eight hours.  On weekends, the guards were on patrol for 16 hours and on call for eight hours.  The Court held that the employer was not permitted to exclude the time guards spent sleeping from the compensable hours worked in 24-hour shifts.  See Mendiola v. CPS Security Solutions, Inc.

Likewise, in Morillion v. Royal Packing Co., the California Supreme Court held that, “we conclude the time agricultural employees are required to spend traveling on their employer’s buses is compensable under Wage Order No. 14-80 because they are ‘subject to the control of an employer’ and do not also have to be ‘suffered or permitted to work’ during this travel period.”  Generally, travel time is considered compensable work hours where the employer requires its employees to meet at a designated place and use the employer’s designated transportation to and from the work site.

Expense reimbursement may seem like a small issue in comparison with the other areas of liability facing California employers, but the Old Carexposure for not appropriately reimbursing employees can be substantial. In Gattuso v. Harte-Hanks Shoppers, Inc., the California Supreme Court clarified the parameters of mileage reimbursement under California law, as well as the three different methods available for employers to reimburse employees for their mileage reimbursement.  This Friday’s Five post discusses five issues employers need to know about automobile and mileage reimbursement under California law.

1. Mileage reimbursement based on IRS mileage rate is presumed to reimburse employee for all actual expenses

The IRS publishes standard mileage rates each year (and sometimes adjusts these rates during the year). The 2017 IRS mileage rate is as follows:

  • 53.5 cents per mile for business miles driven, down from 54 cents for 2016
  • 17 cents per mile driven for medical or moving purposes, down from 19 cents for 2016
  • 14 cents per mile driven in service of charitable organizations

If the employee challenges the amount reimbursed, the employee bears the burden to show how the “amount that the employer has paid is less than the actual expenses that the employee has necessarily incurred for work-required automobile use (as calculated using the actual expense method), the employer must make up the difference.” Gattuso, at 479.

The California Supreme Court also held that the reimbursement rate can be negotiated by parties as long as it fully reimburses the employee, and the amount does not have to be set at the IRS mileage rate. The Court also warned that employee cannot waive the right to be fully reimbursed for their actual expenses:

We agree that, as with other terms and conditions of employment, a mileage rate for automobile expense reimbursement may be a subject of negotiation and agreement between employer and employee. Under section 2804, however, any agreement made by the employee is null and void insofar as it waives the employee’s rights to full expense reimbursement under [Labor Code] section 2802.

Gattuso, at 479.

2. Actual expense method of reimbursement

In examining the different methods of reimbursement, the Supreme Court held that the actual expense method is the most accurate, but it is also the most burdensome for both the employer and the employee. Gattuso, at 478. Under the actual expense method, the parties calculate the automobile expenses that the employee actually and necessarily incurred and then the employer separately pays the employee that amount. The actual expenses of using an employee’s personal automobile for business purposes include: fuel, maintenance, repairs, insurance, registration, and depreciation.

3. Mileage reimbursement method

The Court recognized that employers may simplify calculating the amount owed to an employee by paying an amount based on a “total mileage driven.” Gattuso, at 479.

Under the mileage reimbursement method, the employee only needs to keep a record of the number of miles driven for job duties. The employer then multiplies the miles driven by a predetermined amount that approximates the per-mile cost of owning and operating an automobile. The Court recognized that the mileage rate agreed to between the employer and employee is “merely an approximation of actual expenses” and is less accurate than the actual expense method. It is important to note that while this amount can be negotiated, the employee still is unable to waive their right to reimbursement of their actual costs as mentioned above.

4. Lump sum payment method

Under the lump sum method, the employee need not submit any information to the employer about work-required miles driven or automobile expenses incurred. The employer merely pays an agreed fixed amount for automobile expense reimbursement. Gattuso, at 480. This type of lump sum payment is often labeled as a per diem, car allowance, or gas stipend.

In Gattuso, the Court made it clear that employers paying a lump sum amount have the extra burden of separately identifying and documenting the amounts that represent payment for labor performed and the amounts that represent reimbursement for business expenses.

5. Don’t forget about other expenses incurred in the “course and scope” of working

In addition to mileage, employers may also have to reimburse employees for other costs they incurred in driving their personal cars for business. In making the determination about whether an employee’s actions are in the “course and scope” of their job, courts examine whether the expense being sought by the employee is “not so unusual or startling that it would seem unfair to include loss or expense among other costs of the employer’s business.” Employers need to be mindful about reimbursing employees for cell phone use, printing and office supplies (if employee is required to maintain a home office or use personal printer for work), and other work related expenses.

Employers that utilize interns, or who provide training to individuals that may lead to employment run the risk of having these individuals qualify as an employee, which would require the employer to comply with Labor Code requirements such as minimum wage, meal and rest breaks, and overtime pay.  The analysis is very difficult, and fact intensive, and employers should approach this issue with caution.  Once again, I cannot keep Friday’s Five to five items, but such is the nature of California.

The Division Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE) take that position that in order to determine whether training time is compensable under California law, the following eleven factors would be taken into consideration:

  1. The training, even if it is at the employer’s business and includes operation of the employer’s resources, is similar to that which is given in a vocational school;
  2. The training is for the benefit of the trainees or students, not the employer;
  3. The trainees or students do not displace regular employees, but work under their close observation;
  4. The employer that provides the training receives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees or students and, the employer’s operations my even be impeded;
  5. The trainees are not necessarily entitled to ta job at the conclusion of the training period;
  6. The employer and trainees or students understand that the trainees or students are not entitled to wages for time spent training;
  7. Any clinical training is part of an educational curriculum;
  8. The trainees or students do not receive employee benefits;
  9. The training is general, so as to qualify the trainees or students for work in any similar business, and not specifically for a job with the employer offering the program;
  10. The screening process for the program is not the same as for employment, and does not appear to be for that purpose, but involves only criteria relevant for being accepted into the program;
  11. Advertisements for the program specify clearly that the program is for training or education, not employment.  However, employers can specify that qualified graduates will be considered for employment.

The DLSE has opined is part of the analysis is that the employee does not have to be paid for voluntary attendance at training programs.  Examples the DLSE cites are English language instruction or literacy training.

Who is responsible for costs of training programs?

The DLSE takes the position that there is generally no requirement that an employer pay for training leading to licensure or the cost of licensure for an employee.  While the license may be a requirement of the employment, it is not the type of cost the employers are required to pay for under Labor Code § 2802.  The DLSE states that the most important consideration of the licensure is that it is required by the state or locality as a result of public policy:  “It is the employee who must be licensed and unless there is a specific statute which requires the employer to assume part of the cost, the cost of licensing must be borne by the employee.”  However, if an employer requires an employees to undergo training that is specific only to that employer, then the employer would usually need to bear the training costs.

This week, a federal court in northern California certified portions of a class action Picture - driverbrought by Uber drivers who worked in California since 2009 (click here for the decision [PDF]).  Over 160,000 drivers have worked for Uber in California during this time period, and while the case is making a lot of news, what are the key issues employers should understand about the ruling?  Here are five takeaways for employers from the decision:

1.     Employers must understand the class action procedure

Employers with more than 30 or so employees should understand what a class action is, and the procedural issues of a class action.  It is important to understand that while the court certified certain portions of the plaintiffs’ case (and refused to certify others), this does not mean that Uber has lost the case.  Class certification is not a ruling on the merits of the case, but only whether the case is one that there a sufficient similarities between all of the class members’ claims that enable to court to decide the matter on a class wide basis.  The court explained:

The merits of the case are not currently at issue. Rather, the Court needs to consider only two questions at this juncture; whether the case can properly proceed as a class action, and, if so, how. While answering both of those questions necessarily requires the Court to perform a rigorous analysis of a number of legal issues, the parties correctly recognize that one threshold issue is of paramount importance to the success or failure of Plaintiffs’ class certification motion: as to whether drivers are Uber’s employees or independent contractors under California’s common-law test of employment, will “questions of law or fact common to class members predominate over any questions affecting only individual members” of the proposed class?

….

That is, are the drivers’ working relationships with Uber sufficiently similar so that a jury can resolve the Plaintiffs’ legal claims all at once? This question is of cardinal importance because if the Plaintiffs’ worker classification cannot be adjudicated on a classwide basis, then it necessarily follows that Plaintiffs’ actual substantive claims for expense reimbursement and conversion of gratuities cannot be adjudicated on a classwide basis either.

The court ruled in plaintiffs favor in certifying the class action because Uber treated all of the drivers the same:

As other courts weighing certification of employment misclassification claims have recognized, however, there is inherent tension between this argument and Uber’s position on the merits: on one hand, Uber argues that it has properly classified every single driver as an independent contractor; on the other, Uber argues that individual issues with respect to each driver’s “unique” relationship with Uber so predominate that this Court (unlike, apparently, Uber itself) cannot make a classwide determination of its drivers’ proper job classification.

Uber also made the argument that the class should not be certified because many drivers did not support the lawsuit, as demonstrated in 400 declarations it offered from the drivers.  The court noted that class member’s opposition to the class action does not necessarily bar class certification.  The court explained that it “must be mindful” of the fact that “‘the protections conferred by [these laws] have a public purpose beyond the private interests of the workers themselves.’”  In addition, the court explained that if class members do not agree with the class action, they are free to opt-out of the class action.

2.     The Borello test determines if workers are properly classified as independent contractors

The “most significant consideration” is the putative employer’s “right to control work details.”  S.G. Borello & Sons, Inc. v. Dep’t of Indus. Relations (Borello), 48 Cal. 3d 341, 350 (1989).  Recently, the California Supreme Court noted that under the right-of-control test, it is “not how much control a hirer [actually] exercises, but how much control the hirer retains the right to exercise.” Ayala, 59 Cal. 4th at 533.

The second set of factors that the court will look at under the Borello test are as follows:

a) whether the one performing services is engaged in a distinct occupation or business;

(b) the kind of occupation, with reference to whether, in the locality, the work is usually done under the direction of the principal or by a specialist without supervision;

(c) the skill required in the particular occupation;

(d) whether the principal or the worker supplies the instrumentalities, tools, and the place of work for the person doing the work;

(e) the length of time for which the services are to be performed;

(f) the method of payment, whether by the time or by the job;

(g) whether or not the work is a part of the regular business of the principal; and

(h) whether or not the parties believe they are creating the relationship of employer-employee.

Finally, the Borello test has five additional factors borrowed from the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) in making a determination of a worker’s classification:

(i) the alleged employee’s opportunity for profit or loss depending on his managerial skill;

(j) the alleged employee’s investment in equipment or materials required for his task, or his employment of helpers;

(k) whether the service rendered requires a special skill;

(l) the degree of permanence of the working relationship; and

(m) whether the service rendered is an integral part of the alleged employer’s business.

The court analyzed these factors and held that a class action was appropriate in this case “because all (or nearly all) of the individual elements of the Borello test themselves raise common questions which will have common answers.”

3.     It is the employer’s burden to prove the workers are independent contractors, so proceed with caution

The court noted that because Uber drivers “’render service to Uber,’ they are presumptively employees as a matter of law.  Thus, the Plaintiffs have proved their prima facie case, although the ultimate question of their employment status will need to be decided by a jury.  Therefore, the burden will be on Uber at trial to ‘disprove an employment relationship.’”

4.     Understand obligations to reimburse employees for work related expenses

The plaintiffs were also seeking to certify a class of drivers who incurred business expenses and were seeking reimbursement for these expenses under Labor Code section 2802.  While plaintiffs were not entirely clear on what items they were seeking reimbursement for, the court concluded that it appeared the main reimbursement items were for vehicle operating expenses, such as gas, maintenance, and wear and tear.  Plaintiffs, therefore, waived reimbursement claims for other items such as water, gum, and mints for passengers, and clothing costs.  I’ve written previously about employer’s obligations to reimburse drivers for mileage here.

The court noted that these reimbursement claims “can sometimes be problematic to certify as class actions because ‘there may be substantial variance as to what kind of expenses were even incurred by [the workers] in the first place” and “it may be challenging to determine on a classwide basis whether a particular expense (or type of expense) was ‘necessary’ or incurred in ‘direct consequence’ of the employee’s duties.”  The court held that it would not certify the reimbursement class at this point in time because the plaintiffs did not demonstrate that by dropping the reimbursement claims in addition to the mileage reimbursement claim was in the best interest of the class.

5.     Businesses need to be careful about how they characterize tips or service charges to customers, and understand the difference

Plaintiffs also assert that because the drivers should have been classified as employees, Uber violated Labor Code section 351, which precludes employers from taking employee’s tips.  The court granted plaintiffs’ motion for class certification on this issue based on Plaintiffs’ evidence that Uber informed its customers in advertisements that a tip for the driver was included in the cost of the fares (“When the ride is over, Uber will automatically charge your credit card on file.  No cash is necessary.  Please thank your driver, but tip is already included”; “All Uber fares include the tip….”)  Employers must be mindful about how they characterize tips and service charges, and must understand the difference between the two under the law.

1)      Gratuities

All tips are the empMoney close uployee’s property, and cannot be taken by the employer.  Labor Code section 350 states unequivocally that “Every gratuity is hereby declared to be the sole property of the employee or employees for whom it was paid, given or left for.” In addition, Labor Code section 351 clearly states that “[n]o employer or agent shall collect, take, or receive any gratuity or a part thereof that is paid, given to, or left for an employee by a patron, or deduct any amount from wages due an employee on account of a gratuity, or require an employee to credit the amount, or any part thereof, of a gratuity against and as a part of the wages due the employee from the employer.”  For more information about gratuities, click here.

2)      Costs of photographs

Labor Code section 401 prohibits the employer from requiring employees to submit a photograph from an applicant or an employee without paying for the cost of the photograph.

3)      Cost of uniforms

Employers are required to pay for the costs of uniforms.  Now, what qualifies as a uniform?  That’s a more difficult question.

4)      Business expenses

Labor Code section 2802 prohibits employers from passing on the costs of running a business to an employee.  Therefore, an employer must reimburse its employees for any costs incurred by the employee that is in direct consequence of the employee’s work.  The primary example of this requirement is that employers must reimburse employees for mileage driven in their personal cars for work errands.

5)      Cost for medical or physical exams

If an employer requires an employee or applicant to undergo a medical or physical examination as a condition of employment, the employer must pay for the exam as required by Labor Code section 222.5.

Photo: Kevin Dooley

You may recall from your college business law class of the “American rule” regarding attorney’s fees: generally in the United States each side is responsible to their own attorney’s fees, and unlike other countries, the loser does not have to pay the other party’s attorney’s fees. Employers can basically ignore this general rule in employment litigation under California law. I debated about writing this article because once a lawsuit is filed, employers don’t have any control over what claims and damages the plaintiff will assert, so why would employers need to understand when they have exposure to a current or former employee’s attorney’s fees in litigation? However, employers need to understand the underlying liability of potential claims, the motivations behind those claims, and the major part of many employment law claims can be attorney’s fees. And as shown below, the California legislature has used the award of attorney’s fees to shift the risk in many actions against employers, and it is a concept that employers need to understand to address liability and litigation strategies. Here are five California employment related statutes that can expose employers to a plaintiff’s attorney’s fees:

1. Minimum wage/unpaid overtime claims. Labor Code section 1194, provides attorneys fees for plaintiffs who recover damages for minimum wage or overtime violations:

Notwithstanding any agreement to work for a lesser wage, any employee receiving less than the legal minimum wage or the legal overtime compensation applicable to the employee is entitled to recover in a civil action … reasonable attorney’s fees, and costs of suit.

2. Unsuccessful appeal of Labor Commissioner Claim. In order to discourage appeals from Labor Commissioner rulings, California Labor Code section 98.2(c) requires the court “shall” awards costs and reasonably attorney’s fees to the other party. This section permits the employee to obtain fees on an unsuccessful appeal by the employer, or to the employer who prevails on an unsuccessful appeal by employee. The catch for employers however, is that Labor Code section 98.2(c) provides that the employee is “successful” and therefore entitled to attorney’s fees “if the court awards an amount greater than zero.” Yes, even if the employee receives $1, they are successful in the appeal, and are entitled to their attorney’s fees. Therefore, employers have a huge disincentive in appealing Labor Commissioner rulings.

3. Expense reimbursement claims Labor Code section 2802 provides that employers must pay for and reimburse employees for “all necessary expenditures or losses incurred by the employee in direct consequence” of the employee’s job. Therefore, items like mileage reimbursement, even personal cell phone expenses, or other out-of-pocket expenditures employees make while performing their job must be reimbursed by the employer. Labor Code section 2802(c) provides that the employee is entitled to “attorney’s fees incurred by the employee enforcing the rights granted by this section.”

4. Private Attorney General Act (PAGA) claims Plaintiff’s counsel bringing a PAGA claim can seeks attorney’s fees under this statute as well. See Labor Code section 2699(g). Plaintiffs’ attorneys also claims fees under California Code of Civil Procedure section 1021.5, which permits them to recover fees if the case “resulted in the enforcement of an important right affecting the public interest” if certain requirements are satisfied.

5. California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) The Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) prohibits harassment and discrimination in employment based on protected categories and/or retaliation for protesting illegal discrimination related to one of these categories. “In civil actions brought under [FEHA], the court, in its discretion, may award to the prevailing party . . . reasonable attorney’s fees and costs, including expert witness fees.” (Gov. Code, § 12965, subd. (b).) Under FEHA, the fee shifting provision goes both ways, to the plaintiff but also potentially the employer. Courts have discretion to award the defendant employer attorney’s fees and costs as the prevailing party in cases where plaintiff’s claim is deemed unreasonable, frivolous, meritless or vexatious. As a California court recently explained:

Despite its discretionary language, however, the statute applies only if the plaintiff’s lawsuit is deemed unreasonable, frivolous, meritless, or vexatious. . . . ‘ “[M]eritless” is to be understood as meaning groundless or without foundation, rather than simply that the plaintiff has ultimately lost his case . . . .’

Robert v. Stanford University, 224 Cal.App4th 67 (2014).

Colin Cochran brought a putative class action against his employers, Schwan’s Home Service, on behalf of 1,500 customer service managers who were not reimbursed for expenses pertaining to the work-related use of their personal cell phones. He alleged causes of action for violation of Labor Code section 2802; unfair business practices under Business and Professions Code section 17200 et seq.; declaratory relief; and statutory penalties under Labor Code section 2699, the Private Attorneys General Act of 2004.

The trial court denied class certification on the grounds that there would be too many individualized questions about each employee’s cell phone expenses incurred for work purpose. In Cochran v. Schwan’s Home Service, the appellate court reversed trial court’s denial of class certification. Below are five lessons employers should learn from this ruling.

1. Employers have an obligation to reimburse business expenses incurred by employees.

Labor Code section 2802, subdivision (a) requires: "[a]n employer shall indemnify his or her employee for all necessary expenditures or losses incurred by the employee in direct consequence of the discharge of his or her duties, or of his or her obedience to the directions of the employer…." This Labor Code section requires employers to reimburse employees for all out-of-pocket expenses the employee incurs (and not just cell phone usage) during the performance of their job.

2. Expenses must be necessary in order to require employer reimbursement.

"In calculating the reimbursement amount due under section 2802, the employer may consider not only the actual expenses that the employee incurred, but also whether each of those expenses was `necessary,’ which in turn depends on the reasonableness of the employee’s choices. [Citation.]"

Cochran at 1144.  What is necessary or not could vary from case to case. Apparently, in this case, the employer had a clear policy requiring the service representatives to use their personal cell phones, so there was no need for the court to conduct any analysis about whether the putative class members’ use of their personal cell phones was a necessary expense.

3. Employers must always reimburse employee for expense of cell phone use even though the employee did not pay additional cell phone fees for using their cell phone for work purposes.

This is the essential holding of the Cochran case. The court explains:

The threshold question in this case is this: Does an employer always have to reimburse an employee for the reasonable expense of the mandatory use of a personal cell phone, or is the reimbursement obligation limited to the situation in which the employee incurred an extra expense that he or she would not have otherwise incurred absent the job? The answer is that reimbursement is always required.

Cochran at 1144.  The employer argued that the case could not be certified as a class action because there are too many individualized questions surrounding each employee’s cell phone plan, and if the employee actually incurred any more expenses as a result of using their cell phone for work. Many people now have unlimited data plans, and if so, the employee would not incurred any additional expenses when using the phone for work.

The court explained that any time a cell phone is required for work, the employer must reimburse the employee. The court stated that to hold otherwise would provide a “windfall” to the employer.

4. The court held that the details about each employee’s cell phone plan do not determine liability.

Not only does our interpretation prevent employers from passing on operating expenses, it also prevents them from digging into the private lives of their employees to unearth how they handle their finances vis-a-vis family, friends and creditors. To show liability under section 2802, an employee need only show that he or she was required to use a personal cell phone to make work-related calls, and he or she was not reimbursed.

Cochran at 1145.

5. The court did not explain how to calculate a reasonable reimbursement for employee’s cell phone use when the employee has an unlimited data plan.

The court passed in explaining how an employer and employee would go about figuring out the amount of reimbursement for personal cell phone use given the different data plans available for cell phones. The court stated that section 2802 requires that the employer should pay some “reasonable percentage” of the employees’ cell phone plans when the cell phone is required for work. Cochran at 1144.

This ambiguity is a blessing and a curse for employers. It is a blessing in that it leaves many options available to employers and employees to structure a reasonable reimbursement plan, but it is a curse because the ambiguity could still lead to future challenges to the agreed upon reimbursement plan. 

In my last post, I wrote about what steps employers should talk to comply with the new employment laws for 2015. This post discusses more generally what employers should audit on a yearly basis. And with the year coming to a close, now is a great time to review these five items:

1. Expense reimbursement and mileage policies.
Employees must be reimbursed for all out of pocket expenses incurred while performing their jobs under Labor Code Section 2802. This includes reimbursing employees for their out of pocket expenses for driving their personal vehicles for business purposes. There are a number of different methods employers may utilize in calculating and paying expense reimbursement, as I have previously written here.

While not required, the employer can utilize the IRS mileage rates established each year to pay employees for their vehicle expenses. The IRS mileage rate for 2015 has been set at 57.5 cents per mile (up from 56 cents in 2014).

2. Deductions from wages.
Generally, employer cannot make deductions from employees’ pay for ordinary business expenses or losses. For example, employers are not allowed to deduct the following items employee’s wages:

  • Ordinary damage or wear and tear to equipment
  • The outstanding balance owned on a loan to an employee in one “balloon payment” for the remaining balance of a loan owed to the employer
  • Deductions from employee’s current pay for past payroll errors
  • For returned items from customers
  • Lost equipment
  • Shipping fees to return items to the employer

3. Reporting time pay
California law requires an employer to pay “reporting time pay” under the applicable Wage Order, which states:

Each workday an employee is required to report for work and does report, but is not put to work or is furnished less than half said employee’s usual or scheduled day’s work, the employee shall be paid for half the usual or scheduled day’s work, but in no event for less than two (2) hours nor more than four (4) hours, at the employee’s regular rate of pay, which shall not be less than the minimum wage.

This issue comes up often times when the employer requires employees to attend meetings during days the employees normally have off. It is important for employers to understand this requirement and schedule employees accordingly.

4. Handbook updates
With California’s new paid sick leave requirement, it may be a good time to review your company’s handbook policies to ensure they are compliant and add a policy for the new law. We are currently reviewing a number of our client’s handbooks. It is like going to the dentist, if you wait too long to update your handbook, it will end up costing you more than if the handbook is revised at least once a year.

5. Review employees who are paid on commissions.

A) Must have written agreements with commissioned employees.
As of January 1, 2013, when an employee is paid commissions, the employer must provide a written contract setting forth the method the commissions will be computed and paid. The written agreement must be signed by both the employer and employee. Commission wages are “compensation paid to any person for services rendered in the sale of such employer’s property or services and based proportionately upon the amount or value thereof.” Commissions do not include (1) short-term productivity bonuses, (2) temporary, variable incentive payment that increase, but do not decrease, payment under the written contract, and (3) bonus and profit-sharing plans, unless there has been an offer by the employer to pay a fixed percentage of sales or profits as compensation for work to be performed.

B) If the commissioned employee is non-exempt, ensure the proper overtime rate is being calculated.
If the employee is non-exempt and the employer is required to pay overtime for work longer than eight hours in one day or more than 40 hours in one week, ensure that the employee’s regular rate of pay is properly calculated for overtime purposes. The DLSE provides a good overview of how to calculate the appropriate regular rate of pay here.