We have previously written in this space about the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Integrity Staffing Solutions, Inc. v. Busk, holding that time spent awaiting bag checks was not compensable time under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”). But is such time compensable under California law, which differs from the FLSA in some regards? The critical difference between the FLSA and California laws is that California law requires that employees be paid for all time when they are “subject to the control of the employer” or for all time that they are “suffered or permitted to work.” And, not surprisingly, plaintiffs’ lawyers in California have argued that employees are “subject to the control of the employer” and “suffered” to work while they wait for and participate in bag checks or security screenings.
Faced with this issue, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has turned to the California Supreme Court for guidance, as it has done on several other wage hour issues in recent years. The case before the Ninth Circuit is Frlekin v. Apple, Inc., a case about which we have written previously. In Frlekin, the district court entered summary judgment in favor of Apple with regard to the compensability of bag check time. Granting summary judgment to Apple, the Court concluded that the time was not “hours worked” because the searches were peripheral to the employees’ job duties and could be avoided if the employees chose not to bring bags to work.
On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit essentially threw up its hands, concluding that it did not have enough guidance on whether such time would be compensable under California law. Accordingly, it certified to the California Supreme Court the following question:
Is time spent on the employer’s premises waiting for, and undergoing, required exit searches of packages or bags voluntarily brought to work purely for personal convenience by employees compensable as “hours worked” within the meaning of California Industrial Welfare Commission Wage Order No. 7?
In doing so, the Court recognized that California law differs in some respects from federal law on whether such time is compensable. The Court opined that the case seems to fall somewhere between decisions focusing on whether an employee has the ability to avoid the time, which could apply here because the employees have the option of avoiding a search by not bringing a bag to work in the first place, and decisions focusing on the control the employer exerts over the employees, which could apply here because the employees are under the employer’s control in the workplace.
As the Court noted, “[o]nce an employee has crossed the threshold of a work site where valuable goods are stored, an employer’s significant interest in preventing theft arises.” In light of the benefit to the employer in avoiding shrinkage, “[i]t is unclear . . . whether, in the context of on-site time during which an employee’s actions and movements are compelled, the antecedent choice of the employee obviates the compensation requirement.” The Court suggested that the answer may turn on whether “as a practical matter” employees do not truly have the option of not bringing a bag to work.
Time will tell how the California Supreme Court elects to answer this question. It will likely take at least a year, if not substantially longer, for the Court to issue a ruling. In the meantime, employers in California should review their security practices and consider whether options exist to devise practices that obviate these concerns or at least reduce the associated risk.