Company in trouble for confusing timekeeping system

Donna Vitali, a bookkeeper at a property management firm, was supposed to get a paid hour-long lunch break every day. In reality, though, she frequently felt pressure to work through her lunch break.

While Donna’s work during lunch breaks didn’t automatically qualify as overtime, it counted toward the 40-hour threshold above which hourly employees have to be paid time and a half. So it mattered whether her work during the lunch breaks was tracked.

In this case, the company had an electronic timekeeping system. However, it was apparently very confusing, and had no clear way to capture time spent by employees working during a paid lunch break. Donna’s attempts to resolve the issue with the payroll department went nowhere.

Finally, Donna sued under the state’s wage law for unpaid overtime.

A judge initially threw the suit out, saying the company didn’t know about the overtime because it wasn’t reported.

But on appeal, the Massachusetts Appeals Court sided with Donna. It said that the company’s instructions on how to report hours worked during lunch were “contradictory, confusing and incomplete.” Further, Donna’s (and other workers’) complaints that they were having trouble reporting such hours should have put the company on notice that many employees were working through lunch.

In general, it’s an employer’s obligation to monitor the workplace, and employers can’t simply turn a blind eye to off-the-clock work or make it unduly difficult to report.