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Posted on Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Company and CEO Held Jointly Liable for Minimum Wage Violations

A federal district court in Pennsylvania has held American Future Systems, Inc., and its CEO jointly liable for Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) violations arising from the company’s break policy. That policy required employees to log off of their computers and forgo compensation for all breaks, even short ones lasting fewer than 20 minutes. The CEO, as a 98% owner of American Future Systems and the “final authority” for compensation and break policies, was found to be a joint employer and therefore personally on the hook for these FLSA violations.The company’s written compensation policy, which had been in place since 2009, required employees to log off of their computers during all breaks, including short personal breaks to use the restroom or get a cup of coffee. Because the company only compensated employees for the time they spent logged into their computers, all breaks were rendered unpaid. Such a policy clearly contradicts the FLSA, which states that short breaks between 5 and 20 minutes are considered compensable work hours. As a result of failing to pay employees for their short personal breaks, American Future Systems allowed employee compensation to dip below minimum wage over the course of each pay period, prompting the lawsuit, which was brought by the U.S. Department of Labor.

While a company facing liability for violating FLSA minimum wage and recordkeeping requirements is nothing new, the fact that the CEO was held personally on the hook as a joint employer is an interesting wrinkle that business leaders should take note of. In this case, American Future Systems’s CEO was a principal owner of the company, had hiring and firing authority, controlled compensation and break policies, and was ultimately responsible for company strategy and the activities of its employees. By having that level of control over the day-to-day operations of American Future Systems, the CEO was liable, along with the company itself, as a joint employer. Complying with the FLSA is always imperative, but for owners who exercise a high degree of control over their businesses, this decision provides a new sense of urgency in the form of potential personal liability. It also highlights the importance of having employee handbooks and workplace policies reviewed from time to time, as seemingly innocuous policies such as “always log off from your computer before going on break” could result in significant consequences for the company as well as its owners.

Frank Gulino is an attorney with Berenzweig Leonard, LLP. He can be reached at FGulino@BerenzweigLaw.com.

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