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May 10, 2017

California Supreme Court Interprets State's Day of Rest Statutes

California employers cannot require their employees to work more than six days in seven, but the clock restarts each workweek, meaning employees can work as many as 12 consecutive days without a day of rest, the California Supreme Court ruled May 8, 2017, in Christopher Mendoza v. Nordstrom, Inc., Case No. S224611.

The ruling clarified for the Ninth Circuit unsettled questions of California law relating to the operation of the state’s day of rest statutes, Labor Code sections 550-558.1. These statutes prohibit an employer from “cau[sing] his employees to work more than six days in seven” (§§ 551, 552), but do not apply “when the total hours of employment do not exceed 30 hours in any week or six hours in any one day thereof” (§ 556). The California High Court also ruled as to what it means for an employer to “cause” an employee to work, and ruled that the exemption applies only when both the daily (six hours) and weekly (30 hours) limits are met.

How Often Is a Day of Rest Required?

The Court determined that the day of rest guaranteed by sections 551 and 552 applies for each workweek, not for each seven-day block of time. Finding the text of the rules to be “manifestly ambiguous,” the Court turned to other interpretive sources in arriving at this conclusion, including historical California wage laws and wage orders adopted by the Industrial Welfare Commission (IWC), which ensured a weekly, rather than rolling, day of rest. The Court found that interpreting sections 551 and 552 as applying on a workweek rather than rolling basis “harmoniz[es] the . . . wage orders [and their history] with the statutory guarantees.” “It subjects employees and employers to a single set of consistent day of rest requirements, thereby facilitating the scheduling of work.” 

The Court also looked at the surrounding statutory context, finding that, “[l]ike the IWC in its wage orders,” when the Labor Code refers to a week or workweek, “it means a ‘fixed and regularly recurring period’ (§ 500, subd. (b)), e.g., Sunday to Saturday, or Monday to Sunday, not a rolling period or any seven consecutive days.” The Court reasoned that it was the intent of the Legislature to “ensure employees, as conductive 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,” and that the Court’s interpretation of the Labor Code’s provisions was in line with that intent. 

When Is an Exception Allowed to the Day of Rest Requirement?

Section 556 provides, “Sections 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 addressed whether the section 556 exemption for workers employed six hours or less per day applies if an employee works six hours or less on at least one day of the applicable week or applies only to employees who work no more than six hours each and every day of the given week. The Court favored the latter interpretation, finding that the former interpretation – i.e., if an employee clocks six hours or less on at least one day of the week, the rest day requirement is not triggered – is not the interpretation that the Legislature intended and would render moot the section 556 requirement that employees work 30 hours or less in any week to meet the exemption. It must be, the Court reasoned, that “[b]oth the daily and weekly limit serve a role, as some schedules that involve no more than six hours a day might still require more than 30 hours over the course of the week, while some schedules that involve no more than 30 hours over the week might still include one or more days in excess of six hours.”  

When Is an Employer Causing an Employee to Forgo a Day of Rest?

Under section 552, the Court liberally construed the term “cause,” reasoning that “confin[ing] the interpretation of ‘cause’ to instances of express requirements or compulsions” would “condone implied pressure that may nevertheless achieve an employer’s desired result, to the detriment of the state’s workforce and the long-standing policy in favor of one days’ rest in seven.” The Court held that “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.” While “[a]n employer may not encourage its employees to forgo rest or conceal the entitlement to rest,” the Court explained, an employer “is not liable simply because an employee chooses to work a seventh day.”

With this decision construing the scope of what has been a largely unexplored statutory right to date, employers will be better equipped when making decisions about scheduling their employees.   

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