Do I Have to Pay When an Employee Forgets to Clock In?

One of the biggest frustrations employers face is getting employees to clock in and clock out at work. This isn’t unique to small companies with new time management policies, either. Large businesses spend hours each month training employees how to clock in and making adjustments when they forget to correctly account for their hours.

This has lead some employers to ask: do I really have to pay these employees? If they don’t record their hours properly, how can I know that they are honest about their times they arrived and left? Regardless of how frustrating these mistakes are, you still have to pay your employees. Learn what the law says about employees who don’t clock in and what managers can do about it.

What Are the Federal Recordkeeping Requirements?

According to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), employers need to keep records on the number of hours each of their employees worked -- regardless of whether their employees clock in and clock out. This means that if your employee forgets to clock in and still works a full day, your payroll team has to adjust the schedule to account for the employee’s hours worked, and pay that team member accordingly.

According to the FLSA:

“The Act requires no particular form for the records, but does require that the records include certain identifying information about the employee and data about the hours worked and the wages earned...Each employer shall preserve for at least three years payroll records, collective bargaining agreements, sales and purchase records.”

Oftentimes, employers ask if they can dock the pay of employees who fail to clock in or out -- or withhold pay entirely that day. They cannot. Employees must be paid for the exact number of hours they worked, regardless of whether or not they remembered to clock in.

What Disciplinary Options Do Employers Have?

If an employer can’t dock an employee’s pay for failing to clock in or out, they can take other measures to reinforce the importance of accurately measuring time worked. For example, a human resources representative can contact that employee’s manager to alert them to the time clock issue. In this case, the burden then falls on the manager to make sure that employee is clocking in and to talk to them if the problem persists.

If you do plan to set up disciplinary measures for failing to clock in and out, make sure you write them in your employee handbook. Any changes to the policy or handbook should be reviewed with your staff so they understand the repercussions of not clocking in.

Most companies that implement similar measures create a process with verbal and written warnings, followed by probation, and then termination for employees who won’t clock in if there are a certain number of violations over a set period of time. This shows that the employee exhibited a pattern of behavior where they refused to use the company time clock tools or disregarded comments from management on how to clock in, rather than punishing employees for the occasional human error that most people are prone to.

Teach Employees to Account for Breaks

While the main clock-in and clock-out process typically isn’t confusing for employees, there may be some confusion as to when employees should clock out for breaks -- and what HR can do if they don’t.

Breaks apply to both 15-30 minute increments set out by the department of labor and 30-60 minute lunch breaks created by the company. When adjusting an employee’s schedule, it is illegal for an employer to dock time for breaks or lunch unless the employee actually took that time. If an employee says they worked from 8 am - 5 pm, an employer can’t record an hour-long lunch unless a manager verifies the break as well.

While this law protects employees from not getting paid for work they did, it also protects employers. Employees can be disciplined for not taking their breaks or not taking them at the right time if it is clearly stated in the employee handbook. For example, if an employee works from 8 am - 4 pm and says they took their lunch break from 4 pm - 5 pm as an excuse to leave early.

Employees also need to take their required breaks so the employer doesn’t have to pay unapproved overtime because workers decided to keep going when they needed to clock out and rest.

Your human resources department needs to clearly explain the break policy with both employees and managers, and managers need to enforce employee breaks throughout the workday. This ways employees will be fairly paid, won’t be overworked, and commit time card fraud that hurts your company.

Minor Time Clock Discrepancies Are Unavoidable

It’s natural that there will always be a slight difference between the number of hours that an employee works and the time they clock in and out for. As an example, an employee might clock out, pack their belongings to go home, and then unexpectedly stop and help a co-worker for 15 minutes on their way out the door. However, this additional work time is insignificant, and it’s unlikely that the team member writes to HR and requests a payroll adjustment.  

To solve this, many companies implement policies where employee time tracking is rounded up or down to the nearest quarter hour. For example, if an employee clocking in a 7:55, the punch rounds up to 8:00. There is also a middle point where punch in at 8:07 round down to 8:00 while punch ins at 8:08 and beyond round up to 8:15. Depending on the time clock tool that you have, you can choose to tag the exact time or use this rounding method for easier payroll management.

It’s okay for your time clock to be a few minutes off from what your employees actually work, but you need to adjust any major discrepancies so your records, payroll, and employee hours all line up accordingly.

Invest in a Time Clock That’s Easy to Use

If you’re frustrated by employees who can’t clock in or out correctly and you human resources department hates fixing the timesheets each month, consider switching to a time clock tool that both parties can appreciate.

OnTheClock is an online time clock, meaning employees can clock in or out wherever they have an internet connection. Brands can also geofence the app so team members can only clock in when they are on or near the premises. OnTheClock is also easy for HR teams who need to quickly make adjustments in a simple interface.

You always have to pay employees for their time worked, but you can make it easier for them to clock in and help your HR team make changes with the best tool for the job.

a thought From Beth on 11/15/2018 ...
If the building is locked because the manager is late am i considered late? I was on time but unable to work
reply from OTC - This is a bit of grey area, while technically not working, they employer may not be obliged to pay. However, it would not be your fault that you cannot work, you showed up to work and due to the employers fault you could not actually work. Any good employer should pay for this time, in our opinion.
a thought From Stephanie on 10/8/2018 ...
Can your employer take away your PTO for missing a time clock punch/error?
reply from OTC - Hi Stephanie, PTO is generally regarded as a benefit and is part of your employment contract. The DOL dictates that ALL worked hours have to be paid regardless of time clock malfunctions or missed punches. The DOL does not specifically address employers taking away owed PTO hours due to time clock issues. However, if this was in your employment contract you have justification to ask for your hours back. We hope this helps!
a thought From Km on 9/6/2018 ...
What if time clock is not accessible. Can this be a disciplinary situation
reply from OTC - Kim, Thanks for your comment. As we understand it, according to the DOL, all time has to be recorded and maintained. So if the time clock is not accessible, we suggest that the employer must manually record time and have the employee sign off.
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