California Supreme Court tells Employees – “Have a seat.”

Today the California Supreme Court ruled in favor of employees in a class action lawsuit against CVS Pharmacy, Wal-Mart and J.P. Morgan Chase Bank, wherein the employees were requesting a chair so that they could be seated while performing certain job functions that did not require much movement.

In particular, the California Supreme Court was tasked with resolving the following questions:

(1) Does the phrase “nature of the work” refer to individual tasks performed throughout the workday, or to the entire range of an employee’s duties performed during a given day or shift?

(2) When determining whether the nature of the work “reasonably permits” use of a seat, what factors should courts consider? Specifically, are an employer’s business judgment, the physical layout of the workplace, and the characteristics of a specific employee relevant factors?

(3) If an employer has not provided any seat, must a plaintiff prove a suitable seat is available in order to show the employer has violated the seating provision?

In addressing these questions, the California Supreme Court ruled as follows regarding each particular questions, respectively:

(1) The “nature of the work” refers to an employee’s tasks performed at a given location for which a right to a suitable seat is claimed, rather than a “holistic” consideration of the entire range of an employee’s duties anywhere on the jobsite during a complete shift. 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.

(2) Whether the nature of the work reasonably permits sitting is a question to be determined objectively based on the totality of the circumstances. An employer’s business judgment and the physical layout of the workplace are relevant but not dispositive factors. The inquiry focuses on the nature of the work, not an individual employee’s characteristics.

(3) The nature of the work aside, if an employer argues there is no suitable seat available, the burden is on the employer to prove unavailability.

Based on the California Supreme Court’s ruling, where an employee requests a seat to perform a particular job function, the employer is placed with the burden of proof that seating is not suitable for the job.  There is no question that this ruling will have a far reaching impact as it will apply to all major retail chains.

Quite frankly, if you go in to retail stores in Europe, it is not at all uncommon for cashiers to be seated while checking out customers.  During the times that I have checked out of a European grocery store with a seated clerk, I did not notice any diminution in service.  So while employers will be upset by having to make this change, in the end it will aid in worker moral and health.

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