In recent years, retailers, grocery stores and banks have been hit with a wave of lawsuits over California’s suitable seating requirements set forth in §14 of the Industrial Welfare Commission’s Wage Orders. (See http://www.dir.ca.gov/iwc/wageorderindustries.htm for § 14 in 16 of the 17 industry-specific Wage Orders). Despite the surge in lawsuits, there continues to be several unanswered questions regarding the interpretation of subsections (A) and (B) to §14 which state the following:
- All working employees shall be provided with suitable seats when the nature of the work reasonably permits the use of seats.
- When employees are not engaged in the active duties of their employment and the nature of the work requires standing, an adequate number of suitable seats shall be placed in reasonable proximity to the work area and employees shall be permitted to use such seats when it does not interfere with the performance of their duties.
For example, how does an employer determine when the “nature” of an employee’s work “reasonably permits the use of seats” (in which case §14(A) would apply) or generally “requires standing” (in which case §14(B) would apply)? Additionally, as is often the case with retail employees such as a cashier or clerk, what if an employee performs a variety of assigned job duties, some of which may permit seating and some which may not?
A pending case before the Ninth Circuit – Kilby v. CVS Pharmacy, Inc. – should provide answers to courts and litigants to these questions. Kilby, a former cashier/clerk, filed a representative suit against CVS in 2009 for its alleged failure to provide her with suitable seating under §14(A). The district court dismissed the lawsuit on the grounds that §14(A) was not applicable to Kilby’s job position. (See Order Granting CVS’s Motion for Summary Judgment.) In its decision, the district court interpreted §14(A) as requiring a “holistic” assessment of an employee’s entire range of assigned duties to determine whether the employee’s job “as a whole” reasonably permitted the use of seats (§14(A)) or generally required standing (§14(B)). The district court also considered CVS’s business judgment in its decision – i.e., CVS expected its clerks/cashiers to perform their work while standing, and trained them to do so (among other things, CVS showed a training video to new hires that reinforced its expectations of them to perform a variety of work while standing).
On appeal, Kilby contends that the district court misinterpreted §14 and, and in doing so, failed to account for evidence that she spent approximately 90% of her time performing duties that could have been done while seated. The district court’s interpretation of §14, according to Kilby, allows employers to deprive employees of seats “simply by assigning a handful of tasks that require standing … even if the workers’ other assigned tasks consume a significant portion or even the vast majority of the work day.” As such, Kilby requests the Ninth Circuit to interpret §14 as guaranteeing employees the right to suitable seating whenever a specific task or duty performed for an appreciable period of time can reasonably be accomplished while seated. Kilby also challenges the district court’s consideration of CVS’s business judgment in determining the nature of an employee’s work on the grounds that it frustrates the Industrial Welfare Commission’s intent to create an objective standard for determining which duties could be performed while seated.
The Ninth Circuit now has an opportunity to clarify the legal standard for §14 and offer much-needed guidance on the scope of suitable seating requirements for employees, including those individuals with mixed seating and non-seating job tasks. Moreover, the case will clarify what role, if any, an employer’s business judgment, expectations and training may have in assessing the nature of an employee’s work. The parties’ briefing has been completed and oral arguments before the Ninth Circuit (which should be scheduled and posted on the Ninth Circuit’s website — http://www.ca9.uscourts.gov/calendar/ — in the next few months) will surely keep courts, litigants, and employers on the edge of their seats.