Supreme Court ruling benefits employees, including dental, in wage claims against employers

It’s imperative that dentists correctly account for time employees spend donning and removing protective gear so that they can avoid a “trial by formula” with potentially costly consequences.

Nov 18th, 2016
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It’s imperative that dentists correctly account for time employees spend donning and removing protective gear so that they can avoid a “trial by formula” with potentially costly consequences.

In a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, the evidence requirements for employees seeking unpaid wages were redefined, a move that will impact the way unpaid wage claims are handled moving forward.

Tyson Foods Inc. v. Bouaphakeo addressed workers at chicken processing plants. They were required to don and remove protective gear for their shifts, but were not paid for the time spent doing so. This is time that workers claimed made them eligible for overtime wages. Tyson had not considered that time as “hours worked,” and therefore was not tracking it for each employee. The question became:How do you determine the amount of unpaid wages to which an employee is entitled if there are no specific records showing how much time that employee spent doing “unpaid” tasks?

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In Tyson, the Court allowed the employees to present experts who testified as to the average amount of time that it took to put on and take off protective gear. These averages, referred to as “representative evidence,” were inaccurate because the number of people surveyed was small, and the amount of time each person took to don the equipment varied widely. Tyson argued that use of averages created an unfair basis for determining a settlement amount, and that employees should be required to produce specific proof of unpaid overtime.

The Court found that the employees could rely upon averages because Tyson had not kept records of the time each worker spent donning and removing their protective gear. Tyson’s failure to recognize and properly record employee working hours left the company at the mercy of a “trial by formula” that resulted in a settlement of $2.9M in back wages, and a total of $5.8M including liquidated damages.

So, what does this ruling mean for dental practice owners?

In general, this case serves as a reminder that it is the employer’s burden to maintain proper records. Practice owners should be aware that a lack of records can negatively impact both the verdict and the settlement amount of any given claim, and they should protect their business with appropriate recordkeeping generated from a legally-compliant timeclock.

Specifically, as a practice owner you may argue that employees need to be dressed at the start of their shift. However, the FLSA (Fair Labor Standards Act) requires that employees be paid for activities that are “integral and indispensable” to their regular work duties. If employees must don or remove their uniforms on the office premises and this is not counted as time worked, you could be denying non-exempt employees their overtime compensation rights.

It’s imperative that dentists correctly account for time employees spend donning and removing protective gear so that they can avoid a “trial by formula” with potentially costly consequences. In addition to owing overtime back pay, you could be exposed to waiting time penalties and liquidated damages, which can significantly impact your practice’s financial health. In short, a proper timekeeping system is more important than ever in the legal defense of contemporary wage claims.


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Ali Oromchian, JD, LLM, is the founding attorney of the Dental & Medical Counsel PC law firm. He is also cofounder of HR for Health, which provides a cloud-based human resource management solution for dental practices. Mr. Oromchian is well known for his expertise in legal matters pertaining to dentists. He has served as a key opinion leader and legal authority in the dental industry with dental CPAs, consultants, banks, insurance brokers, and dental supply and equipment companies. He serves as a legal consultant for numerous dental practice management firms that rely on his expertise for their clients’ businesses.

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