Overview: It's hard to improve on the source material when it comes to describing the de minimis doctrine.
In a 1946 ruling, the Supreme Court wrote: "When the matter in issue concerns only a few seconds or minutes of work beyond the scheduled working hours, such trifles may be disregarded. Split-second absurdities are not justified by the actualities of working conditions or by the policy of the Fair Labor Standards Act. It is only when an employee is required to give up a substantial measure of his time and effort that compensable working time is involved.
The US Department of Labor (DOL) says employers may disregard these seconds or minutes only when they are "uncertain and indefinite," and "justified by industrial realities." Employers may not arbitrarily fail to count any time spent working, no matter how small, if it is "practically ascertainable" or regularly scheduled.
However, to make bookkeeping easier, employers may round employees' starting times and stopping times to the nearest five minutes, to the nearest one-tenth of an hour, or to the nearest quarter of an hour. This rounding must average out over time so that employees eventually are compensated for all the time they work.
Trends: Modern automated timekeeping systems make it more difficult than ever for employers to argue that employees' working time is not "practically ascertainable." While rounding is clearly permitted, the de minimis doctrine should be invoked only after consulting with counsel.
Author: Michael Cardman, Legal Editor
Updated to reflect a US Department of Labor (DOL) opinion letter concerning civic or charitable work.
Updated to reflect information on a California Court of Appeal ruling concerning show-up time / reporting time.
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HR guidance on complying with the FLSA’s de minimis doctrine and the rounding of working time.