I’m sitting in Room 307 of the San Francisco Superior Court. When I got here, I was the only person in this bank of five seats, but as usual, my presence has managed to act as an asshole magnet. To my immediate right are two women who have not stopped talking for literally one second since they got here. Two seats to my left is a man providing running commentary on what he is listening to on his mp3 player. “Not the day for Slayer!” he announces, a little too loudly.
I get called for jury service every year, but this is the first time I’ve made it as far as the oath-in-the-courtroom. Jury duty never bothered me before, because as a teacher, I was always paid for the days I spent twiddling my thumbs in windowless rooms. As a Biz Miss, however, being selected for a jury could do some serious harm to my business. Never mind the hours of work I might lose right off the bat — I could be out of contact with customers and vendors for days, if not weeks.
So what’s a Biz Miss to do when she gets called for jury service? What are the rules regarding compensation, or getting excused? To begin with, you should know that according to the Superior Court web site, your employer does not have to pay you during your jury service, they just have to give you the time off. If you give them “sufficient” notice of your impending jury service (which remains undefined), they can’t fire you, but you could potentially lose months worth of pay if you get assigned to a long trial. If this is the case, or if you are self-employed, you can ask for an excuse based on “severe hardship.” You write on your summons form exactly what sort of impact jury service will have on your financial situation, and then hope for the best. In hindsight, I sort of wish I had done this, but it seemed dishonest to claim “severe financial hardship” given my ability to run most of my business outside of court hours. The judge for our case made sure to emphasize that “serious inconvenience” does not equal “severe hardship,” and while having no free time for two weeks is definitely a serious inconvenience, it wouldn’t keep me from being able to pay the rent.
If you end up having to spend more than one day at jury duty you are entitled to compensation. In San Francisco, if you are a government employee you can only claim a $2.50 “mileage fee” for any days you appear at the courthouse after the first. If you are not a government employee you can also claim an additional $15 per day “jury fee” from the second day forward. It’s not much, but at least it covers lunch and public transportation.
What about tax deductions? Can you deduct meals and travel during jury service? Sadly, no. The only jury-related tax deduction I could find occurs if your employer forces you to hand over your jury fees to help them compensate for your lost time. In that case, you can deduct the total of your jury fees from your gross income. Otherwise, no dice.
In short, jury duty almost always sucks, but at least there are a few saving graces. Firstly, we get three breaks a day, including a 90-minute lunch, during which I can both eat and conduct a little business. Secondly, the courthouse has free wireless, which works with even my ancient 7-year-old laptop. And finally, there is a lot of downtime during jury duty, in which I can write blog posts, do my bookkeeping, or knit Christmas presents. Just don’t try to bring a pair of three-inch sewing snips into the courthouse. They will tell you to “put them outside somewhere,” which actually means “try to hide them in a bush when none of the bums are looking.”