Because of concerns about employee theft, many employers have implemented practices whereby employees are screened before leaving work to ensure they are not taking merchandise with them.  While these practices are often implemented in retail stores, other employers use them as well when employees have access to items that could be slipped into a bag or a purse.

Over the last several years, the plaintiffs’ bar has brought a great many class actions and collective actions against employers across the country, alleging that hourly employees are entitled to be paid for the time they spend waiting to have their bags inspected when leaving work.  These lawsuits are often referred to as “bag check” cases.

While the Supreme Court’s decision in Integrity Staffing Solutions, Inc. v. Busk largely put an end to these cases under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), it did not do so under California law.  That is because of a critical difference between the FLSA and California law.  Unlike the FLSA, 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 security screenings.

In defending against these claims, not only do employers often argue that each employee’s experience differs such that class certification would be inappropriate, but they frequently argue that the time spent in “bag checks” is so small as to be de minimis – and, therefore, not compensable.

Courts throughout the country have recognized the principle that small increments of time are not compensable, including the United States Supreme Court.

In a class action in the Northern District of California where a class had been certified, Nike argued that the time its employees spent in “bag check” was de minimis.  And the Court agreed, awarding it summary judgment.

In Rodriguez v. Nike Retail Services, Inc., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 147762 (N.D. Cal. Sept. 12, 2017), the district court certified a class of all Nike non-exempt retail store employees since February 2010.  But in certifying the class, the Court specifically held that, “whether time spent undergoing exit inspections is de minimis is a common issue.  ‘That is, if the time is compensable at all, an across-the-board rule, such as sixty seconds, might wind up being the de minimis threshold.’”

Seizing on that holding, Nike commissioned a time and motion study.  That study revealed that an average inspection takes no more than 18.5 seconds.  Nike argued that such time was de minimis.  The Court agreed.

In reaching its conclusion, the Court found that the average inspection time was minimal, employees did not regularly engage in compensable activities during inspections, and it would have been administratively difficult for Nike to record the exit inspections.

The plaintiffs have already filed an appeal from the order granting summary judgment against them.

It is no secret that California’s wage-hour laws are complex and often raise questions that employers, employees and the courts struggle with. As we wrote here more than a year ago, faced with questions regarding California’s ambiguous “day of rest” laws, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals threw up its hands and asked the California Supreme Court to clarify those laws.

Among the questions to be answered was one that impacts a great many employers, particularly those in the retail and hospitality industries – does the requirement that an employee be provided a “day of rest” apply to each workweek (such that an employee could be scheduled to work 12 consecutive days over two workweeks), or does it apply to each rolling, 7-day period (such that employees could never be scheduled to work more than 6 consecutive days)?

Employers have been awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision, not just because it could require them to change their scheduling practices, but because an adverse interpretation of the “day of rest” laws could lead to a great many lawsuits and exposure over past practices.

The California Supreme Court issued its opinion in Mendoza v. Nordstrom, Inc. on Monday.  And the Court’s answers to the Ninth Circuit’s questions are ones that should please most employers.

Perhaps most importantly, the Supreme Court concluded that “a day of rest is guaranteed for each work week,” not for each rolling, 7-day period – a conclusion that would allow an employer to schedule an employee to work for as many as 12 consecutive days without violating the law (so long as the employee is not required to work 7 in one workweek).

The California answered the Ninth Circuit’s questions as follows:

  1. With regard to California Labor Code section 551, which  provides that “[e]very person employed in any occupation of labor is entitled to one day’s rest therefrom in seven,” is the required day of rest calculated by the workweek, or is it calculated on a rolling basis for any consecutive 7-day period?

As the Ninth Circuit Court noted, this question was no mere matter of semantics. One answer would lead to liability for the employer, while the other would not.

Reviewing the “manifestly ambiguous” statutory language and legislative history, the California Supreme Court concluded, “A day of rest is guaranteed for each workweek. Periods of more than six consecutive days of work that stretch across more than one workweek are not per se prohibited.”

The Court explained, “The Legislature intended to ensure employees, as conducive 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.”

  1. With regard to California Labor Code section 556, which exempts employers from providing such a day of rest when the total hours of employment do not exceed 30 hours in any week or six hours in “any” one day thereof, does the exemption apply when an employee works less than six hours in any one day of the applicable week, or does it apply only when an employee works less than six hours in each day of the week?

As the Ninth Circuit noted, the word “any” could support either interpretation. And, again, this was not a matter of semantics. The different interpretations of “any” would lead to very different liability determinations.

The California Supreme Court concluded, “The exemption for employees working shifts of six hours or less applies only to those who never exceed six hours of work on any day of the workweek. If on any one day an employee works more than six hours, a day of rest must be provided during that workweek, subject to whatever other exceptions might apply.”

  1. With regard to California Labor Code section 552, which provides that an employer may not “cause” his employees to work more than six days in seven, what does the word “cause” mean? Does it mean “force, coerce, pressure, schedule, encourage, reward, permit, or something else?”

Again, the different interpretations of “cause” would lead to different liability determinations.

The California Supreme Court concluded, “An employer causes its employee to go without a day of rest when it induces the employee to forgo rest to which he or she is entitled. An employer is not, however, forbidden from permitting or allowing an employee, fully apprised of the entitlement to rest, independently to choose not to take a day of rest.”

The California Supreme Court’s answers to these questions – particularly the first and third – will likely be greeted with much relief from employers in California, especially in the retail and hospitality industries where it is not uncommon to schedule employees to work 7 days or more in a row with shifts of varying lengths, and where employees may often swap shifts with each other such that they are working seven days or more in a row.