May 8, 2017

Supreme Court clarifies day of rest statutes in response to Ninth Circuit’s certified questions

In Mendoza v. Nordstrom, Inc., the Supreme Court today answered certified questions of state law from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit concerning the operation of California’s day of rest statutes, Labor Code sections 550 through 558.1.  In a unanimous opinion by Justice Kathryn Werdegar, the Court gave the following answers to the Ninth Circuit’s questions:

  • “A day of rest is guaranteed for each workweek. Periods of more than six consecutive days of work that stretch across more than one workweek are not per se prohibited.”
  • “The exemption for employees working shifts of six hours or less applies only to those who never exceed six hours of work on any day of the workweek. If on any one day an employee works more than six hours, a day of rest must be provided during that workweek, subject to whatever other exceptions might apply.”
  • “An employer causes its employee to go without a day of rest when it induces the employee to forgo rest to which he or she is entitled. An employer is not, however, forbidden from permitting or allowing an employee, fully apprised of the entitlement to rest, independently to choose not to take a day of rest.”

Under the decision, the Court concluded that Labor Code 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.”  The Court was “unpersuaded by the concern that this reading of the statutory scheme will permit employers regularly to impose on employees schedules in which they may rest no more than one day in 12.” The Court also rejected the argument that the “the general employee-protective thrust of the Labor Code” compelled adoption of the interpretation favored by the plaintiffs.  The Court concluded that “the Legislature intended to ensure employees, as conducive to their health and well-being, a day of rest each week, not to prevent them from ever working more than six consecutive days at any one time.”

But the Court further held that the plaintiffs had the better argument with respect to the “six-hour day” exception of Labor Code section 556, which provides that “[s]ections 551 and 552 shall not apply to any employer or employee when the total hours of employment do not exceed 30 hours in any week or six hours in any one day thereof.”   The Court ruled, “[c]onsistent with the import of the complete text of section 556 and the views of the relevant state agencies,” that “the six hours or less daily exception is satisfied only if every daily shift that week has entailed six hours or less of work.”

With respect to the meaning of “cause” under Labor Code section 552, which provides that an employer may not “cause his employees to work more than six days in seven,” 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.”

In the proceedings that preceded the Ninth Circuit’s issuance of certified questions, the federal district court held a bench trial on the plaintiffs’ day of rest claims. It concluded: (1) “Labor Code section 551 guarantees a day of rest on a rolling basis, for any seven consecutive days”; but (2) “under section 556, the guarantee does not apply so long as an employee had at least one shift of six hours or less during the period,” as the plaintiffs did; and (3) the defendant employer “did not cause [the plaintiffs] to work more than six consecutive days because it did not force or coerce them to do so.”

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