Sitting on the Job in California: Clarification for Employers
In case you missed it, in April, 2016 the California Supreme Court provided some clarification about the state's decades-old suitable seating rule, which requires employers to provide chairs to employees when it's deemed "reasonable." The clarification could further empower workers in the most populous U.S. state to sue if seating isn't available to them on the job.
"When all is said and done, the burden of proof is going to be on employers in most situations to determine why a seat would not be reasonable," Stephen Hirschfeld, a labor lawyer in San Francisco who provides advice to companies, told the Associated Press.
The state high court's clarification was the result of two major companies—CVS Pharmacy and JP Morgan Chase—both being sued at the federal level by employees in California who have accused those companies of not providing them required seating. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit requested that the state court answer questions about the law in order to inform their decisions on the two federal lawsuits.
The major question asked by the federal appeals court was whether courts should consider an employee's entire work situation when deciding whether he or she should have reasonable seating. In the CVS lawsuit, for example, cashier Nykeya Kilby argued that she deserved a seat under the California rule. The federal district court sided with CVS, agreeing with the company's argument that many of Kilby's duties required her to stand and therefore she didn't need a chair.
The California Supreme Court clarification rejected this "holistic" approach and instead said that the state's seating rule can be applied to each task at a work site, which could be interpreted to mean that Kilby should get a chair for those tasks that don't require her to be standing. Said the court: "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."
According to the state court, for decades California's Industrial Welfare Commission made orders related to sitting precisely because it was a humane consideration. "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," Justice Carol A. Corrigan wrote in the court’s decision.
The California Supreme Court added that employers may still make arguments related to their "business judgment" about why they do not provide seats to employees. However, the arguments likely will not hold water if they involve the employer merely preferring that the tasks be performed standing versus sitting. The question of whether an employee should be allowed to sit should focus on the "nature of the work, not an individual employee's characteristics," the court clarified.
Employers may also still argue that there are simply no seats available at their worksite, but the burden of proof is on them.
The clarification likely means that California employers should consider making chairs available to employees in an effort to mitigate claims under the state's suitable seating rule. And because the lawsuit involved large corporations, it's possible that other states will consider adding seating rules as well.