I can still remember when the first suitable seating cases were filed. I reckon' it happened right about the time that the wage & hour landscape became unsettled in the meal period and rest break areas, class certification decisions were all over the place prior to Brinker, and PAGA claims were getting a long look as an alternative and supplemental approach to class claims. The suitable seating cases went through an initial wave of appellate court analysis, but, without California Supreme Court guidance on the issue, federal courts were left to speculate about what the California Supreme Court would say on the matter. The Ninth Circuit addressed that lack of clarity by certifying questions to the California Supreme Court. In Kilby v. CVS Pharmacy, Inc. (April 4, 2016), the California Supreme Court answered those questions.
The questions, as posed by the Ninth Circuit were:
(1) Does the phrase “nature of the work” 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?
(2) When determining whether the nature of the work “reasonably permits” use of a seat, 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?
(3) 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 2. The short answers (which were followed by an extensive discussion) are:
(1) The “nature of the work” refers to an employee’s tasks performed at a given location for which a right to a suitable seat is claimed, rather than a “holistic” consideration of the entire range of an employee’s duties anywhere on the jobsite during a complete shift. If the tasks being performed at a given location reasonably permit sitting, and provision of a seat would not interfere with performance of any other tasks that may require standing, a seat is called for.
(2) Whether the nature of the work reasonably permits sitting is a question to be determined objectively based on the totality of the circumstances. An employer’s business judgment and the physical layout of the workplace are relevant but not dispositive factors. The inquiry focuses on the nature of the work, not an individual employee’s characteristics.
(3) The nature of the work aside, if an employer argues there is no suitable seat available, the burden is on the employer to prove unavailability.
Slip op., at 2. Before looking at any of the more interesting parts of the Court's discussion, we now know with certainty that suitable seating is a task-based, not a position-based, requirement. And I immediately concluded after reading this opinion that I wanted to start a business that specializes in making narrow and light barstool-style swivel chairs for cashiers in the retail and grocery sectors. That's where the real money is going to be found.
Anyhow, chair empire plans aside, the Court began by explaining the history of the IWC and the suitable seating provision in the various wage orders. Next, the Court looked at pronouncements on the most recent standard by the IWC and DLSE. For instance, the Court took note of a DLSE amicus curiae brief filed in a federal action:
[T]he DLSE filed an amicus curiae brief in Garvey v. Kmart Corp. (N.D.Cal. Dec. 18, 2012, No. CV 11-02575 WHA) 2012 WL 6599534 (Garvey), a federal class action suit claiming Kmart cashiers were entitled, under section 14(A), to seats while working. The DLSE emphasized reasonableness as the guiding standard: “If called upon to enforce Section 14, DLSE would apply a reasonableness standard that would fully consider all existing conditions regarding the nature of the work performed by employees. Upon an examination of the nature of the work, DLSE would determine whether the work reasonably permits the use of seats for working employees under subsection (A) of Section 14, and whether proximate seating has been provided for employees not engaged in active duties when such employees are otherwise required to stand under subsection (B).”
Slip op., at 11. After reviewing the DLSE and IWC commentary on the suitable seating requirement, the Court then set about the task of examining the IWC wage order language. After reviewing the language, the Court rejected the defendants' position that jobs should be classified as "sitting" jobs or "standing" jobs:
Defendants’ argument sweeps too broadly and is inconsistent with the purpose of the seating requirement. As discussed, the IWC’s wage orders were promulgated to provide a minimum level of protection for workers. The requirement’s history reflects a determination by the IWC that “humane consideration for the welfare of employees requires that they be allowed to sit at their work or between operations when it is feasible for them to do so.” (IWC, Statement of Findings by the Industrial Welfare Commission of the State of Cal. in Connection with the Revision in 1976 of its Orders Regulating Wages, Hours, and Working Conditions (Aug. 13, 1976) p. 15.) Defendants’ proposed consideration of all tasks included in an employee’s job description ignores the duration of those tasks, as well as where, and how often, they are performed. This all-or-nothing approach could deprive an employee of a seat because most of his job duties are classified as “standing” tasks, even though the duration, frequency, and location of the employee’s most common tasks would make seated work feasible while performing them. There is no principled reason for denying an employee a seat when he spends a substantial part of his workday at a single location performing tasks that could reasonably be done while seated, merely because his job duties include other tasks that must be done standing.
Slip op., at 14. The Court expressed concern that the all-or-nothing approach could result in a situation where two employees performing the same task could have different seating rights, based on the overall classification of their job. Yet, the Court also found the plaintiffs' position too narrow, focusing on a single task to determine if that one task could be performed seated. The Court found that focusing on the work done and the tasks performed in a location alleviated the problems created by both the defendants' approach and the plaintiffs' approach.
The Court then examined the "reasonably permits" portion of the seating requirements. The Court found that the employer's assessment of overall job performance (its business judgment) was a factor that could be considered, as was the physical layout of the workplace . These factors, however, must be considered "in light of the overall aims of the regulatory scheme, which has always been employee protection." The Court disagreed that differences between employees was a factor, since the regulation focused on the "work," and not the "worker."
Finally, the Court swiftly rejected the idea that a plaintiff must prove that a suitable seat is available, after showing that the nature of the work would reasonably permit the use of a seat.
The Court concluded by saying, "Sit on that." No, not really. But the Court was unanimous.