California Wage-Hour Law

When California employees bring lawsuits alleging minimum wage, overtime, meal period or rest period violations, they typically bring additional claims that are purportedly “derivative” of these substantive claims.  One of these derivative claims is for wage statement (i.e., paystub) violations, alleging that because the employee was paid not all wages he or she allegedly earned, the wage statements he or she was provided were not accurate.

The maximum penalty for a wage statement violation under the California Labor Code is $4,000 per employee.  With such a significant potential penalty, it is no wonder that plaintiffs’ attorneys typically tack on these types of claims, especially in proposed class actions, driving up the potential value of a case.

On May 8, 2018, however, the California Court of Appeal published an employer-friendly decision that could operate to defeat these claims in many cases – if it is not reversed by the California Supreme Court.

In Maldonado v. Epsilon Plastics, Inc., ___ Cal.App.5th ___ (B278022, Apr. 18, 2018), the Court of Appeal confirmed that a wage statement claim fails as a matter of law when it is based on the alleged failure to show all wages purportedly “earned” but the wage statements accurately reflect the wages paid to the employee.  The Court agreed with the employer’s “commonsense position that the pay stubs were accurate in that they correctly reflected . . . the pay received” and held that a failure to pay wages “does not mandate that [employees] also receive penalties for the wage statements which accurately reflected the[] compensation” they were paid.

The Court of Appeal’s decision in Maldonado is a welcome one for employers that have had to face wage statement claims that are tacked on by plaintiffs’ lawyers for the purpose of increasing potential exposure.  Because this is the first published opinion directly deciding this issue, employers now have the tool necessary to seek to strike these claims.

Of course, it is possible that the California Supreme Court will review Maldonado.  If it were to do so, it would not be entirely surprising for the Court to reverse the decision, as the Supreme Court has done in other employment cases in recent years where the Court of Appeal had issued employer-friendly interpretations of the California Labor Code.

Featured on Employment Law This Week: The California Supreme Court has clarified the state’s ambiguous “day of rest” provisions.

The provisions state that, with certain exceptions, employers will not cause “employees to work more than six days in seven.” The state’s high court addressed three questions about this law that had been certified by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. The court determined that employees are entitled to one day of rest per workweek. So, every Sunday marks the beginning of a new seven-day period. Additionally, the court clarified that employees who work six hours or less during each day of the week are not entitled to a day of rest and that employees can choose not to take the day of rest if they are fully aware of the entitlement.

Watch the segment below, with commentary from our colleague Kevin Sullivan, and read our recent post.

Clarification Of California’s Obscure “Suitable Seating” Wage Rule Likely To Lead To More Employers Providing Seats – And To More Class Actions Against Those Who Don’tWe have written previously about California’s obscure wage rule pertaining to “suitable seating,” which requires that some employers provide some employees with “suitable seating” in some circumstances if the “nature of the work reasonably permits it” – and exposes employers to significant penalties if they do not do so.

Faced with a dearth of guidance on the obscure rule and with a wave of class actions following the discovery of the rule by the plaintiffs’ bar, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals threw up its hands last year and asked the California Supreme Court to answer a few questions relating to the law.

In a decision issued on April 4, 2016 in Kirby v. CVS Pharmacy, Inc., the California Supreme Court did so.

And the California Supreme Court’s answers to the questions posed to it seem certain to lead to at least two results.

First, many employers will need to reassess their practices and determine whether it is reasonable to provide seats to employees.  This will be a particularly important assessment for employers in the hospitality and retail industries, where employers often expect employees to stand while working in order to show customers that they are attentive and available.

Second, the California Supreme Court’s clarification is certain to lead to a rise in the filing of class actions alleging that employers have unlawfully refused to provide suitable seating.

The questions that were posed to the California Supreme Court, and a summary of the Court’s answers, are as follows:

Question 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?

Answer: 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.

Question 2When 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?

Answer: 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.

Question 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?

Answer: 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.

The Court explained, “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.”

The California Supreme Court’s opinion should help employers assess whether and when to make seating available to employees.  And employers should review their practices promptly to try to comply with the law.  Now that the California Supreme Court has provided some much needed guidance on the issue, employers can expect that their practices will be challenged, and those challenges will often come in the context of class action lawsuits.

Kevin Sullivan
Kevin Sullivan

On March 31, 2016, the California legislature passed a bill that will gradually increase the state minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2022. Governor Jerry Brown is expected to sign the bill on April 4, 2016. This increase will impact employers statewide. Not only will it affect the wages of many non-exempt employees, but it will also result in an increase in the minimum salary paid to employees who qualify for most overtime exemptions.

The bill calls for the minimum wage to increase to $10.50 per hour effective January 1, 2017, $11.00 per hour effective January 1, 2018, and then an additional one dollar per hour each year until it reaches $15 per hour effective January 1, 2022. (For employers with 25 or fewer employees, each of the minimum wage increases would start a year later such that $15 per hour minimum would not go into effect until January 2023.)

Importantly, once the minimum wage reaches $15 per hour, it may then be further increased annually by up to 3.5% to account for inflation based upon the national consumer price index.

Built into the bill is an “off-ramp” provision that allows the governor to pause any scheduled increase for one year if either economy or budget conditions are met. Once the $15 per hour minimum wage has been reached, the “off-ramp” provision expires.

While this increase will certainly have an impact on labor budgets for employers with hourly, non-exempt employees, the impact on employers with salaried, exempt employees cannot be ignored. Because most exempt employees in California must make at least twice the minimum wage on an annual basis, the current minimum salary for exempt employees who work for employers having more than 25 employees will increase from $41,600 to $43,680 effective January 1, 2017. It will then increase to $45,760 effective January 1, 2018, $49,920 effective January 1, 2019, $54,080 effective January 1, 2020, $58,240 effective January 1, 2021, and $62,400 effective January 1, 2022.

Betty WhiteIt is often said that no employer is immune from a wage-hour lawsuit. That no matter how diligent an employer is about complying with wage-hour laws, there is nothing to prevent an employee from alleging that it did not comply in full with the law, leaving it to the attorneys and the court to sort things out. Perhaps the best evidence that no employer is immune from a wage-hour lawsuit came on Thursday, March 17, 2016. That is the date that history will always reflect that a wage-hour lawsuit was filed against Betty White.

Yes, that Betty White. Ninety-four year old Betty White. Sue Ann Nivens from The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Rose from The Golden Girls. Betty White from The Betty White Show, and hundreds of talk shows, game shows, and commercials. One of the most recognizable faces of television for the past 50 years.  And one of the most universally adored. That Betty White. Sued. For wage-hour violations.

On March 17, 2016, a former domestic named Anita Maynard filed suit against Betty White in state court in Los Angeles, alleging that she was not paid minimum wages or overtime, was not permitted to take meal and rest periods in compliance with the law, and was not paid all wages due to her when her employment ended. (The lawsuit is known as Anita Maynard v. Betty White Ludden.  Some will recall Ms. White’s late husband, Allen Ludden, who hosted Password in the 1960s and 1970s before succumbing to cancer.) Now, we have no idea whether the claims have any merit.  And, like many single-plaintiff wage suits, it may well be dismissed or settled quietly without anyone knowing much. But we do know this: if Betty White can be sued for wage-hour laws, then any employer can be.

And that is just another reminder of how important it is for employers to try to ensure compliance with wage-hour laws.

shutterstock_31365553More than a few media sources have reported on the March 10, 2016 wage-hour “victory” by a class of Taco Bell employees on meal period claims in a jury trial in the Eastern District of California.  A closer review of the case and the jury verdict suggests that those employees may not be celebrating after all — and that Taco Bell may well be the victor in the case.

The trial involved claims that Taco Bell had not complied with California’s meal and rest period laws. The employees sought meal and rest period premiums and associated penalties for a class of employees that reportedly exceeded 134,000 members.

Now, it is certainly true that, at trial, a class of employees prevailed on a claim that Taco Bell did not comply with California meal period laws for a limited period of time (2003-2007), when Taco Bell reportedly provided employees with 30 minutes of pay when they were not able to take meal periods, rather than the full one-hour of pay provided for by California law.

And it is certainly true that the class of employees was awarded approximately $496,000 on that claim.

But as it appears that there were more than 134,000 employees in the class, a few punches on the calculator show that, on average, each employee would receive approximately $3.70.

Perhaps more importantly, while it may have lost on that one claim, Taco Bell prevailed on the remaining claims in the case where the class alleged that Taco Bell had violated both meal and rest period laws as to its employees, including a claim that Taco Bell had not provided meal periods in compliance with the law for a period of approximately 10 years (2003-2013).   That claim alone likely would have resulted in a jury verdict of several million dollars had the employees prevailed on it.  But they did not.  Taco Bell did.

In other words, in a case where the employees were presumably asking a jury for several millions of dollars for alleged violations dating back to George W. Bush’s first term as President, they were only awarded approximately $496,000.

In the grand scheme of a class action, where employers must constantly weight the costs of litigation with the benefits of settlement, that is a small sum.  It is likely an amount Taco Bell gladly would have paid to settle the case.  In fact, one would have to speculate that $496,000 is likely much less than the amount Taco Bell actually offered the employees and their attorneys to resolve the case in mediation or otherwise.

So while the media may be reporting that this is a “victory” for Taco Bell employees, those employees, who will receive $3.70 each on average, may not see it that way.  Instead, they may well be questioning the lead plaintiffs and their attorneys about how much Taco Bell offered at the settlement table, if it was rejected, and why.

(And before anyone responds, “But the employees’ attorneys will get their attorneys fees,” we’re talking about the recovery for the employees themselves. If the real victors in the case are the attorneys, that’s another issue, isn’t it?)

On June 18, 2015, the Ninth Circuit issued an unpublished opinion in Lemus v. Denny’s, Inc. The opinion provides guidance to California employers that require their employees to wear non-slip shoes as a condition of employment.

California law generally requires that an employer must reimburse employees for “necessary expenditures.”  However, not all expenses are reimbursable.

In addressing Denny’s requirement that employees wear non-slip black shoes for which they are not reimbursed, the Court noted that, under California law, a “‘restaurant employer must only pay for its employees’ work clothing if the clothing is a ‘uniform’ or if the clothing qualifies as certain protective apparel regulated by CAL/OSHA or OSHA.’” The plaintiff who sued Denny’s did not argue that the non-slip black shoes were part of a “uniform,” nor did he argue that such shoes were not “generally usable in the [restaurant] occupation.” As such, the Court held that California law does not require Denny’s to reimburse the cost of its employees’ slip-resistant footwear. Notably, the Court did not address whether such shoes qualified as reimbursable protective apparel because the plaintiff conceded that issue.

The Court also found in favor of Denny’s on the plaintiff’s challenge to the use of computerized authorizations for certain wage deductions. California requires that when wages are deducted from an employee’s paycheck (other than taxes, Social Security, etc.), the employee must expressly authorize such a deduction in writing. The plaintiff claimed that the cost of non-slip shoes was not properly deducted because employees did not sign a paper authorizing such deductions; but did so electronically. The Court rejected that argument.

Finally, the Court rejected the plaintiff’s argument that employees were coerced into buying non-slip shoes from a particular vendor.  However, the plaintiffs did not present any evidence that employees were required to purchase from that vendor.

The Ninth Circuit’s opinion  provides guidance on the issue of whether employees must be reimbursed for non-slip shoes. In particular, unless the shoes were considered part of a uniform and were not usual and generally usable in the employer’s industry, it would appear that reimbursement of such is not required under California law. Additionally, where an employee authorizes a deduction electronically using some form of personal identification, the opinion provides a California employer with some comfort that it has met its obligation so long as such a record is retained. Also, where there is no actual coercion for an employee to purchase something from the employer or a specified third party for employment, the opinion again provides employers with comfort that they have complied with the law.

As if California employers were not already besieged with wage-hour class actions and agency complaints, the state’s controller has now decided to get in on the action.

As The Los Angeles Times reported last week, Controller John Chiang has initiated a new program he calls “Operation Pay-Up” to recover unpaid wages.  The article may be found here

In short, the Controller is using California’s Unclaimed Property Law to attempt to gain restitution of wages believed to be withheld from employees.  Any recovered wages that are unclaimed will be transferred to the state treasury, with the controller’s office attempting to locate the employees.

At this stage, it is too early to tell how broad “Operation Pay-Up” will be or the companies or industries that it will focus on – let alone how the program will interact with class actions or agency complaints. 

But, at the very least, it is yet another reminder to employers doing business in California that they need to get up to speed on the state’s intricate wage-hour laws and take steps to ensure compliance.

And for those employers who need a primer on California wage-hour laws, EBG’s free wage-hour app puts those laws — and federal laws and the laws of other states – at your fingertips. 

By Michael Kun

Much has already been written about last week’s California Supreme Court decision in Duran v. U.S. Bank Nat’l Ass’n, a greatly anticipated ruling that will have a substantial impact upon wage-hour class actions in California for years to come.  Much more will be written about the decision as attorneys digest it, as parties rely on it in litigation, and as the courts attempt to apply it.

In a lengthy and unanimous opinion, the California Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeal’s decision to reverse a $15 million trial award in favor of a class of employees who claimed they had been misclassified as exempt, and to decertify the class.  How the$15 million award had been obtained in the first place has been the subject of much discussion and more than a bit of ridicule.  In short, the trial court had tried the case by essentially pulling names from a hat to determine which class members would be able to testify at trial, with the defendant precluded from presenting evidence as to other employees.  The California Supreme Court described this approach as a “miscarriage of justice.”   It then discussed in great length whether, when and how statistical sampling could be used in these cases, among other things.

Already, both the plaintiffs’ bar and the defense bar are claiming that the Supreme Court’s decision is a victory for them.

Because the Supreme Court did not foreclose the possibility that statistical evidence could be used to establish liability in these types of cases – instead, it recognized that “[s]tatistical sampling may provide an appropriate means of proving liability and damages in some wage and hour class actions” —  the plaintiffs’ bar is claiming victory.  To the extent they contend that Duran allows the use of statistical evidence to prove liability, they are ignoring the most important word in that sentence – “may” – along with the various caveats laid out by the Court.

Because the Supreme Court explained that the process must allow an employer to impeach the statistical model and litigate its affirmative defenses, and that there must be “glue” holding claims together beyond statistical evidence, the defense bar is likewise claiming victory.  But even they must admit that it is not the death blow to wage-hour class actions that they may have hoped for.

In truth, Duran is a unusual decision in that it provides more than a few quotes for plaintiffs’ lawyers and defense lawyers alike to rely on.

Ultimately, the most important language in Duran may be this: “A trial plan that relies on statistical sampling must be developed with expert input and must afford the defendant an opportunity to impeach the model or otherwise show its liability is reduced.”

What does this mean?

It means that some trial plans based on statistical sampling may be approved.

And it means that some trial plans based on statistical sampling may not be approved.

It means that a trial court’s analysis will turn, at least in part, on whether the employer will be able to impeach the model and show that it does not work.

And it means that, more than ever, these cases are going to require the parties to retain expert witnesses, and whether classes will be certified will turn on those expert witnesses.  Remember, the Court did not just say that a trial plan that relies on statistical sampling might be appropriate.  No, it said that such a trial plan “developed with expert input” might be appropriate.

The result of all of this is that, with the plaintiffs’ bar now emboldened because the door has not been shut on the use of statistical evidence on liability, employers may face even more wage-hour class actions in California than before.

And statistical experts can go buy those new houses, cars and boats they’ve been eyeing because their services will be in greater demand than ever.  They are the real victors in this decision.

By Michael Kun

If employers with operations in California believed that they could not possibly face more wage claims than they already do, they can think again.

The California Department of Labor Standards Enforcement (“DLSE”) – the state agency that addresses wage claims – has launched a new website designed to notify employees of their rights and explain how to file claims:

http://www.wagetheftisacrime.com/What-We-Do.html#laborCommissioner

The website provides detailed information about the various types of claims individuals may bring, and how to bring them. As the website explains, all an employee needs to do is fill out a form and mail it to the DLSE.

And the website includes links to those forms — and instructional guides — in English, Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Tagalog, and Punjabi.

While only time will tell just how many more wage claims are filed as a result of this new website and the publicity surrounding it, one thing remains certain – state and federal agencies are more focused than ever on wage issues. And, as a result, employers must be, too.