Words Are Important

confused woman

When we are ambiguous in our speech, or don’t make our intentions clear, confusion reigns. Confusion causes problems in many areas: employees waste time on unimportant tasks, work has to be redone to correct errors, misunderstandings arise, feelings get hurt… and in today’s litigious society, lawsuits often result.

Terminology can be important in many aspects of life. In a lawsuit, terminology can be crucial. Here are two examples:

It matters what you call that paycheck

On March 4, 2013, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court issued a ruling in the case of Dixon v. City of Malden — a ruling that illustrates the importance of being careful with what you call things.

Dixon had been the director of a nursing home owned by the City of Malden. Although he had worked for the city for over 20 years, the City’s board voted not to reappoint him to the job. At the time, Dixon had 50 days of accrued but unused vacation time, with a value of nearly $14,000.

He and the city were unable to reach an agreement regarding retirement and severance prior to his departure from the job. In an effort to appease Dixon, the city continued his regular salary and benefits for three months after his departure, paying him $19,700 in salary. They were hoping he would feel the city was treating him fairly and abandon any claims. However, despite this Dixon filed a lawsuit under the state Weekly Payment of Wages Law seeking to be compensated for the unused vacation.

The case made its way through the courts, and ended up at the Supreme Judicial Court.

The city argued Dixon had been fully compensated for the vacation time through their gratuitous payments, and that to pay him vacation in addition to the voluntary payments they had made to him after his departure would constitute a “windfall” for him.

However, the court disagreed, noting that none of the checks he had received had mentioned anything about being for vacation pay. In fact, the paystubs continued to indicate he had an outstanding accrued vacation balance! As the court noted, “had the city paid the plaintiff payments labeled as vacation pay, and merely been late in those payments, the city would not have been foreclosed from offsetting those payments from what was owed.”

Instead, they were out the $19,700 in salary and still owed Dixon an additional $13,615.54… not to mention the cost of all the litigation along the way.

Just because it’s two days, that doesn’t mean it’s a split shift

Meanwhile, in California, in the case of Securitas v. Superior Court, the California Court of Appeal decided a case that hinged on the definition of the term “split shift.”

In the state of California, Industrial Welfare Commission Wage Order No. 4 entitles employees to an additional hour of pay at the minimum wage for any workday they work a split shift. A “split shift” is defined as “a work schedule, which is interrupted by non-paid non-working periods established by the employer, other than bona fide rest or meal periods.”

In this class action case, the original plaintiffs tried to get tricky with the terminology. They worked an overnight shift at Securitas Services USA, Inc. that crossed midnight. Among other things, they claimed because they worked the early morning hours (at the end of one shift), then went home for the day and came back to work again in the late evening of the same day (at the beginning of their next shift), they had, in fact, worked a “split shift” on that calendar “workday.”

The original trial court agreed with the plaintiffs, noting that Securitas themselves defined a “workday” as running from midnight to midnight. However, on appeal, the Court of Appeal disagreed with the trial court, noting the section of the Wage Order doesn’t refer to a “workday,” but rather to a “work schedule.” Elsewhere in the regulations, a “workday” is defined as ”any consecutive 24-hour period beginning at the same time each calendar day.”

So, since these shifts took place within a single “work schedule” that began at the same time every day and was not interrupted, the court decided they didn’t qualify as “split shifts.” Even though the “work schedule” didn’t correspond to the employer’s stated midnight-to-midnight “workday.”

Have you got any examples from your own workplace where unclear terminology caused problems? Use the comment section below to tell your story.

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