Calif. High Court Clarifies Day of Rest for 9th Circuit

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – The California Supreme Court on Monday offered clearer definition to a blurry area of state labor law, noting that while workers are entitled to one day of rest per work week, those who always work less than six hours per day and 30 hours per week are free to give up their day off if they and their employer agree.

After the Ninth Circuit asked for clarification of the finer points of California labor law, the state’s highest court ruled workers are guaranteed one day of rest per work week and that exemptions only apply if the worker never exceeds six hours per day during any given week. Furthermore, the high court said employers are only obligated to inform workers of their right to rest, and that workers can waive the right to rest and work extra hours if both parties agree.

The case stems from a dispute between high-end retailer Nordstrom and two of its former employees, Christopher Mendoza and Meagan Gordon.

On several occasions, Mendoza – who worked as a barista and a sales representative was asked to fill in for other employees – said he frequently worked more than six consecutive days. Gordon also worked for Nordstrom on more than six consecutive days.

The pair sued Nordstrom in state court, which Nordstrom successfully removed to federal court. There, a federal judge dismissed the case because the pair each had worked less than six hours on at least one day and because Nordstrom did not force the pair to work, rest-day exemptions applied.

On appeal, a Ninth Circuit panel asked the California Supreme Court to answer whether state labor law calculates the required day of rest by the work week or on a rolling 7-day basis, if it applies to only to workers who work less than six hours each day, and what it means when an employer “causes” an employee to go without a day of rest – “force, coerce, pressure, schedule, encourage, reward, permit or something else?” the Ninth Circuit asked.

As to how the day of rest is calculated, the high court justices said the legislative intent behind the that portion of labor code was to provide workers one guaranteed day of rest per work week.

“We conclude sections 551 and 552, fairly read in light of all the available evidence, are most naturally read to ensure employees at least one day of rest during each week, rather than one day in every seven on a rolling basis,” California Supreme Court Associate Justice Kathryn Werdegar wrote in the 24-page answer.

Similarly, while the lower court said the exemption kicks in when an employee works one day of less than six hours during a work week, the supreme court said all of the work days within a work week must have been below six hours for the exemption to apply.

“Only employees asked to work no more than six hours on any one day, and no more than 30 hours total, may be given a schedule with seven days of work,” Werdegar wrote.

Finally, the court finds middle ground between the arguments of Mendoza and Gordon and Nordstrom regarding the meaning of “causes.”

Mendoza and Gordon argued that whenever an employer allows a worker to work a seventh day, it has caused a worker to do so – and therefore violates the section of labor law that prohibits employers from “causing” someone to work seven days.

Nordstrom argued that if the employer doesn’t require or force a person to work the seventh day, it hasn’t “caused” someone to work.

“We conclude neither definition is sufficient,” Werdegar wrote. “Rather, an employer‘s obligation is to apprise employees of their entitlement to a day of rest and thereafter to maintain absolute neutrality as to the exercise of that right. An employer may not encourage its employees to forgo rest or conceal the entitlement to rest, but is not liable simply because an employee chooses to work a seventh day.”

Workers have the right to one day of rest per work week when they exceed six hours on any day or 30 hours for the week, otherwise the exemption applies, the high court said. Alternatively, workers may waive that day of rest but employers need to inform workers of their right – and any waiver must be formally done to be in compliance with the law.

K.L. Myles of Knapp Petersen & Clarke based in Glendale, California, argued for the appellants. Julie Dunne of Littler Mendelson argued on behalf of Nordstrom.