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Safeway manager wins overtime pay suit
Bob Egelko
Updated 8:22 pm, Friday, May 24, 2013

Safeway must pay $26,000 in overtime to a former assistant store manager who, because of staff cuts and demanding standards, spent most of her time doing tasks like bagging groceries and stocking shelves while keeping an eye on her crew, a state appeals court has ruled.

The Southern California case was the first to go to trial out of more than 300 suits by Safeway managers from around the state who say they had to devote more than half their workdays to nonmanagement tasks and should have been paid overtime, said Scott Brooks, a lawyer for the employees.

Safeway is “using its store management as gap-fillers in order to gain a competitive advantage over other retailers,” Brooks said after Thursday’s ruling by the Second District Court of Appeal in Los Angeles.

But Kevin Lilly, a lawyer for the supermarket chain, said the ruling granted the former manager only a small portion of the damages she sought. He said a judge in the second case to go to trial, involving three former managers, has issued a tentative decision dismissing their claims.

The appellate decision involved Linda Heyen, an assistant manager at an Oceanside (San Diego County) store from April 2004 to October 2005 with a salary of $50,200 a year.

As a manager, she was responsible for hiring, supervising, training and scheduling the 25 to 35 store employees. But Heyen said she had to spend four to six hours a day bookkeeping, because of a cutback in bookkeepers, and additional time filling in for hourly employees at the counters and shelves.

Heyen and her supporting witnesses said Safeway did not hire enough workers to meet the demands of its service policy, which required the store to open a new checkout counter whenever three customers were waiting in line.

State law allows employers to deny overtime to managers unless an employee spends more than half of his or her time doing nonmanagement work. A judge and jury in Los Angeles, where the cases are being heard, found that Heyen was entitled to overtime for about 21 weeks in which she worked 14 hours a day, mostly on nonmanagement tasks.

In its appeal, Safeway argued that Heyen could perform two tasks at once – supervising other works while stocking shelves, for example – and should be considered a manager rather than an hourly worker during those periods.

But the appeals court, in a 3-0 ruling, said both state and federal labor law reject a “multitasking” approach.

Heyen could be considered a manager for the time she spent on tasks that were primarily intended to help supervise her staff or contribute to the “smooth functioning” of the store, the court said, but not for work that was mainly intended to keep the shelves stocked or the checkout lines moving.

Bob Egelko is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: begelko@sfchronicle.com