Archives for July 2014

Meal Breaks: To Pay or Not to Pay?

Paying employees the wages they are due for their work is, conceptually, at least, a pretty straightforward matter. Working 8 hours, e.g., results in 8 hours of pay, less time spent on a meal break of 30 or 60 minutes. But when it comes to deducting time spent on meals by hourly employees, things sometimes get tricky. While Massachusetts and federal law permit meal breaks to be unpaid, the rule applies only when employees are completely relieved of their work duties.

As with many things legal, interpreting what this means can be anything but straightforward. Wage and hour guidance indicates that, any time an employee is required to remain on site or to perform any sort of work, either actively or not, meal break time must be paid. This likely means that an employee who sits with others during lunch and discusses work issues needs to be paid for the break time, even if the employer supplies a sandwich at no cost to the worker. It certainly means that, when an employee may possibly perform work while on break – answering a phone call, e.g., or addressing questions about a work issue – the time spent eating is compensable regardless whether work is actually performed. Not surprisingly, employers sometimes stumble on this issue. Because the penalties for not paying workers for all hours worked can be severe (triple the amount owed plus legal fees under the Massachusetts Wage Act), the damage from an error in this area can be significant, especially for larger employers. [Read more…]

Task Force that Investigates Employee Misclassification is Broadened, made Permanent by Statute

Some six years after it was created by executive order, the joint task force on the underground economy and employee misclassification is being formalized by statute. As part of the recently enacted minimum wage law, there was created a “council on the underground economy” to coordinate state-wide efforts to combat misclassification.

The new Council was preceded in 2008 by a task force that Gov. Deval Patrick created under his executive authority. Its mission, then as now, is to investigate and help root out what Massachusetts considers a widespread effort to avoid tax laws and underpay workers by misclassifying them as contractors rather than employees. Under the new statute, the Council is empowered to educate business owners about the law, to conduct targeted investigations, and to take enforcement actions through multiple agencies. Its stated goals are to protect workers’ rights and ensure fair competition. The Council also clearly aims at helping the government increase collections of various tax-related assessments.

Included as part of the Council will be the same agencies that previously formed Gov. Patrick’s task force along with many additions. Eight of them are unnamed and will be appointed by the governor from among state agencies. The Council will be chaired by the secretary of labor and workforce development. The Department of Industrial Accidents, Division of Unemployment Assistance, and Department of Revenue will all have representatives just as they did on the task force.

Whistle Blowers and Massachusetts Law

When an employee decides it’s time to blow the whistle on employer misconduct or that of a fellow worker, employees are well advised to do a bit of homework first. While it certainly seems like whistle blowers should be protected by the law – and, generally speaking, they are – those protections do not come without rules. Simply put, employees cannot suffer retaliation for reporting certain improprieties at their places of employment but must comply with legal procedures and definitions.

State employees enjoy the protection of a whistle blower statute (Ch. 149, §185 of the General Laws). It prevents employers from firing, suspending, demoting or otherwise punishing them for reporting what employees reasonably believe to be violations of laws, regulations, or other matters an employee “reasonably believes poses a risk to public health, safety or the environment.” Except in limited circumstances, however, employees must first report any such violation to their supervisor’s attention in writing. As one worker recently found out, the internal report requirement is strictly construed – her case claiming she was forced to resign after reporting records falsification was dismissed because she did not report the problem in writing before she sued.

For others, Massachusetts interpretative law has carved out an exception to the at-will rule that protects employees who report crimes, either internally or to outside authorities. Again, employees who feel compelled to blow the whistle on such conduct should take care to ensure they are in fact reporting a violation of law before they do so. In general, Massachusetts employers can terminate their workers for any reason or no reason – a complaint about a company policy or rule, e.g., differs materially from a complaint about a crime. The whistle blower exception for privately employed individuals should be examined carefully before action that might imperil future employment is undertaken.