California Supreme Court Rules Employers Cannot Force Their Employees to Stand All Day When Their Tasks and Workstations Reasonably Allow Them to Take a Seat

The California Industrial Welfare Commission (“IWC”) regulates working conditions, working hours, and wages for specific industries via its published Wage Orders. One such regulation requires employers to provide employees “with suitable seats when the nature of the work reasonably permits the use of seats.” See IWC Wage Orders 1-13 and 15, Section 14(A), and IWC Wage Orders 14 and 16, Section 13. The purpose is not to force employees to sit, but to force employers to provide employees with the option to sit, should they so desire. Until recently, there was no controlling California precedent explaining how this seating regulation should be interpreted.

In Kilby v. CVS Pharmacy, Inc., and Henderson v. JPMorgan Chase Bank, cashiers and bank tellers, respectively, brought class action lawsuits alleging they were unjustifiably forced to be on their feet all day. Concerning the interpretation of the IWC seating regulation, the Ninth Circuit questioned: (1) whether “the nature of the work” referred to the individual tasks (i.e. an individual view), or to the range of tasks (i.e. a holistic view), that employees performed throughout their workdays; (2) whether “reasonably permits” included considerations of the employer’s business judgment, the physical layout of the workplace, and/or the employees’ physical characteristics; and (3) whether employees have to prove what constitutes “suitable seats” to prove a violation. See Killby, 739 F. 3d 1192, 1193-94 (2013).  In both cases, the Ninth Circuit deferred the interpretation to the California Supreme Court.

On April 4, 2016, the Supreme Court held that employers must use the individual view in evaluating “the nature of the work.” That is, employers must evaluate the specific tasks performed by the employee at the location where the employee claims a seat is warranted in determining whether “the nature of the work reasonably permits the use of seats.” In essence, if the employee stands at a fixed location the majority of their workday (such as cashiers and bank tellers), and if sitting would not interfere with any tasks that may require standing, then the employer must provide the seat option.

However, the court also ruled that employers can look at the “totality of the circumstances,” including their business judgment and the physical layout of the workplace (but not the employee’s physical characteristics) in determining whether the nature of the work “reasonably permits” the use of a seat. The burden is on the employer to prove the unavailability of a suitable seat.

Though not exactly a bright-line standard in interpreting the seating regulation, this ruling will make it easier for employees to be awarded class certification in seating cases. Further, employers will no longer be able to set blanket prohibitions against sitting just because they consider standing to be more professional. Instead, employers will have to justify the unavailability of seating considering the employee’s individual tasks and where they are performed.

For more information about your rights to suitable seating, and a free consultation, please call us at (619) 342-8000.