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Train Managers on Time Sheet Red Flags

By Allen Smith  5/10/2012

Time sheets that suggest the hours worked are “same old, same old” day in and day out should be a red flag for employers, according to Lee Schreter, an attorney with Littler Mendelson in Atlanta.

“Often employees will record their time in the same fashion day after day without any variation,” she noted. “For example, an employee may consistently report 9-5 and a one-hour lunch from 12-1. These records are highly suspect, as our common sense would suggest that employees rarely arrive and depart with this type of precision and consistency.”

Schreter cautioned that “an added problem is often an employee’s supervisor will be forced to testify at trial that he or she knew the time report was not correct based on observation.”

It doesn’t take much for the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) to disregard time records if it believes they are not accurate, noted Paul DeCamp, an attorney with Jackson Lewis in its Washington, D.C., area office.

Employers are constantly surprised by difficulties in reporting hours worked accurately. “Intellectually, it seems like it ought to be easy to record time worked, but it is surprisingly difficult to do with precision and perfectly,” he told SHRM Online.

Schreter said that she increasingly is recommending that employers migrate to electronic time systems, whether they are clock- or computer-based. And she is recommending timekeeping systems that record hours worked to the nearest minute. “I recommend against exception reporting systems, as these systems have many of the same problems that arise with paper timekeeping,” she added.

Failure to Complete Time Sheets

Sometimes employers that rely on employees filling out their own time sheets are faced with the dilemma of what to pay when employees fail to fill out their time sheets. The employer can’t just not pay employees for failing to fill out their time sheets, though they can discipline the employees. If the employer knows that an employee did some work and figures out it was between 35 and 45 hours, it’s obligated to pay 35 hours and sort out the rest by interviewing the employee, DeCamp said.

“Be sensible about discipline. Don’t jump straight to termination,” he remarked. There might be a good reason the employee forgot to do a time sheet, such as work was frenetic or there was an emergency or fire drill. “Use common sense in how you enforce your policies.”

Accurate Time Sheets

Jennifer Shaw, an attorney with Shaw Valenza LLP in Sacramento, Calif., said employers ought to consider whether employees have to sign time sheets. “They don’t have to by law, but it’s a great idea to require them to sign and acknowledge the time sheet is accurate, they didn’t work off the clock and no one interfered with their ability to take required rest breaks and meal periods,” she said.

“The employer really should monitor and discipline the over or underreporting of hours,” Nelson Thomas of Thomas & Solomon in Rochester, N.Y., said. “The emphasis needs to be on making sure the employee is accurately reporting the time. If the emphasis is just on the employee reporting less time, that can result in problems in terms of the employer suppressing the actual number of hours the employee worked.”

“Electronic recording is always preferable because it’s accurate,” Shaw stated. “However, it can be expensive and can create morale problems because it’s degrading to some folks to ‘punch a time clock.’ Overall, I think having an accurate recording of the hours worked is more important than a few bruised egos.”

An employer can require an exempt employee to complete a time record, Schreter added. “In the 2004 preamble to the white collar regulations, the DOL reiterated its longstanding position that requiring exempt employees to record and track hours worked did not jeopardize their exempt status,” she noted.

“Most of the issues that come up about time sheets deal with employees reporting the same start and stop time each day as opposed to actual start and stop time,” remarked Todd Wozniak, an attorney with Greenberg Traurig in Atlanta. “Those issues usually have to be addressed through training and disciplinary action. It is also important for managers to actually review time sheets and ensure employees appear to be filling them out accurately.”

Allen Smith, J.D., is manager, workplace law content, for SHRM.
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