HR Management & Compliance

Wage and Hour: Do Employees Get a Seven-Minute Grace Period When Late for Work?

We have been challenged by an employee who claims that all employees get a “grace period” of seven minutes before they can be reprimanded and docked any pay when late for work. For example, if the shift starts at 8:00 a.m. and the employee arrives at 8:07, the employee should be paid for the seven minutes and not be reprimanded for tardiness. We have fewer than 20 employees and are a medical office where the staff members need to be on time and ready to work. Our employee manual states that employees can have up to three tardies in a given month before disciplinary action will be considered. Do we have to honor a grace period at the start of a shift? What are my rights as an employer and those of the employee?
 —Paula T., HR Manager in Sacramento

The HR Management & Compliance Report: How To Comply with California Wage & Hour Law, explains everything you need to know to stay in compliance with the state’s complex and ever-changing rules, laws, and regulations in this area. Coverage on bonuses, meal and rest breaks, overtime, alternative workweeks, final paychecks, and more.

Many employers face this troublesome issue. California’s Department of Industrial Relations (DIR) takes the position that there is no such mandatory grace period. So, you could dock someone for being a few minutes late. However, most employers do grant a grace period of five to seven minutes to be realistic about “emergency” situations. For example, sometimes people miss the bus or traffic is particularly bad, so most employers accept that employees are occasionally going to have unforeseen problems that make them a few minutes late.

Employees could make up the seven minutes at the end of the day, if you insist. Of course, notes the DIR, if you dock people for being a few minutes late, logically you should pay overtime if they work seven minutes over. But do you want to bother with that? Most employers don’t. Instead, they just take a reasonable attitude toward this problem.

However, if people are late every day, that’s not an unforeseen problem or emergency. You can warn and discipline those workers. The DIR strongly recommends that employers have a policy that clearly spells out company rules about attendance and tardiness. Some employers may need a very strict policy (for example, if a production line can’t start until every employee is present), while others may be more relaxed if there are enough people to cover for a late employee.

Also, the DIR recommends, consider requiring employees to call in if they’re going to be late so that you will have some warning of an employee’s tardiness and be able to take steps to deal with it.

Some employees mistakenly think they are entitled to a grace period because the time clock will accept their punch for, say, up to seven minutes after the regulated start time, but this is no indication of a grace period. A quick training session should clear this matter up.

Matter of House Practice

Basically, policies vary from company to company. An employee manual should set out the organization’s rules, which could include a statement that there is no grace period for tardiness.

When dealing with employee tardiness, employers should also be aware of their past practices and remain consistent. If you discipline someone for being a few minutes late, and he or she can point out that you didn’t discipline another employee for the same thing, that could appear to be discrimination if the disciplined individual is a member of a protected class.

In sum, time on the job is time on the job, and late is late. But most employers do give a little “grace.”

Shari Dunn is managing principal of CompAnalysis, a compensation and performance management consulting firm in Oakland.