On April 4, 2016, the California Supreme Court answered three questions certified by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit regarding interpretation of the California wage order requirements for the provision of seating to employees (previously covered on the ILJ here). This opinion arose from two federal court class actions on the issue, one against CVS Pharmacy and the other against Chase Bank. See Kilby v. CVS Pharmacy, Inc., No. S215614 (Cal. April 4, 2016) (slip op. available here). The much-anticipated clarification is welcomed by plaintiffs’ attorneys following a dearth of authority as to how to evaluate claims based on an employer’s failure to provide adequate seating.
The three questions certified to the California Supreme Court were:
- Does the phrase “nature of the work” [under Wage Order Nos. 4-2001 and 7-2001, § 14(A)] refer to individual tasks performed throughout the workday, or to the entire range of an employee’s duties performed during a given day or shift?
- When determining whether the nature of the work “reasonably permits” use of a seat [as used in Wage Order Nos. 4-2001 and 7-2001, § 14(A)], what factors should courts consider? Specifically, are an employer’s business judgment, the physical layout of the workplace, and the characteristics of a specific employee relevant factors?
- If an employer has not provided any seat, must a plaintiff prove a suitable seat is available in order to show the employer has violated the seating provision?
Slip op. at 1. First, the court rejected the employers’ argument that the work in question should be evaluated based on a “holistic” consideration of all of an employee’s job duties during an entire shift, which would require a weighing of all of an employee’s “standing” tasks against all of the “sitting” tasks, and then classifying a job as either a “sitting” or “standing” job. It also rejected the employees’ argument that the work in question should be evaluated separately for each individual task that the employee might perform. Rather, the court referenced legislative history and the California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement—which had submitted an amicus brief—to hold that the “nature of the work” under the wage order should be examined as to each of the subsets of tasks that an employee would perform or would be expected to perform in a particular location within their workplace (out of the total tasks and duties performed during a shift), “such as those performed at a cash register or a teller window, and consider whether it is feasible for an employee to perform each set of location-specific tasks while seated.” Id. at 16. In other words, seating might be required while attending to certain work tasks (grouped by their location) but not others, even for the same employee.
Second, the court held that whether work “reasonably permits” use of a seat should depend on the totality of circumstances, including both whether tasks can be performed while seated, as well as whether seating would be feasible, with no single factor being determinative. In doing so, the court preserved a role for the employer’s “business judgment” (such as to the efficacy of providing customer service when seated versus standing) and the physical layout of the workplace among the factors to be considered. Slip op. at 20-23. However, the court rejected consideration of the physical differences among employees as a relevant factor, because “the provision requires a seat when the nature of the work reasonably permits it, not when the nature of the worker does.” Id. at 24.
Lastly, because the wage order “unambiguously states employees ‘shall be provided with suitable seats,’” the court held that any claim that “compliance is infeasible because no suitable seating exists” would be the employer’s burden to prove. Slip op. at 25.
Kilby appears to be a boon for plaintiffs seeking to certify seating claims, because the evaluation now focuses more on objective inquiries common to groups of employees. Further, plaintiffs no longer need to prove that seating could have feasibly been provided, often an awkward and time-consuming exercise. With this much-needed clarification of the law regarding seating claims, California employees can be expected to bring and seek to certify an increasing number of seating actions.
Jonathan Lee, Associate
CAPSTONE LAW APC