The California Labor Code states that employers must provide at least one day off per week, but the “day-of-rest statute” does not provide an unambiguous statement of employees’ rights and employers’ obligations. A federal lawsuit alleging violations of this statute raised multiple questions of interpretation. In 2015, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals sent three certified questions to the California Supreme Court, seeking to clarify several provisions. Mendoza v. Nordstrom, Inc. (“Mendoza I”), 778 F.3d 834 (9th Cir. 2015). The California Supreme Court ruled on the questions earlier this year, hopefully providing more clarity for both employers and employees. Mendoza v. Nordstrom, Inc. (“Mendoza II”), No. S224611, slip op. (Cal., May 8, 2017).
The day-of-rest statute, unlike many laws, is not wordy. The fact that a statute does not stretch on for many pages, however, does not imply that it is easy to understand or interpret. This statute provides that anyone “employed in any occupation of labor” has the right “to one day’s rest…in seven.” Cal. Lab. Code § 551. It further states that an “employer of labor” cannot “cause his employees to work more than six days in seven.” Id. at § 552. These provisions do not apply, however, when an employee works no more than 30 hours in a week, or no more than six hours in a day. Id. at § 556. The three sentences that comprise these three code sections raise multiple questions of interpretation.
The plaintiffs in the underlying lawsuit allege that the defendant scheduled them to work for more than six consecutive days, in periods of seven to 11 consecutive days. They claimed that this violated California’s day-of-rest statute. They appealed to the Ninth Circuit after the district court dismissed their claims.
The Ninth Circuit certified three questions to the California Supreme Court:
1. Is the “one day’s rest in seven” requirement in § 551 based on a seven-day workweek, or “on a rolling basis for any consecutive seven-day period?” Mendoza I, 778 F.3d at 837.
2. Does the exemption for working six hours or less in a day apply when an employee works no more than six hours in a single day, or no more than six hours in every day of that workweek?
3. What does § 552 mean by “cause” an employee to work more than six out of seven days? The court considers a range of meanings from “force” to “reward.” Id.
After reviewing the history of the day-of-rest statute, the California Supreme Court answered the Ninth Circuit’s three questions. Section 551 refers to a distinct seven-day workweek, defined as either “Sunday to Saturday, or Monday to Sunday,” rather than “a rolling period of any seven consecutive days.” Mendoza II, slip op. at 10. More than six consecutive days of work would be permissible, as long as there is one day off in each workweek. The “six hours or less” exception applies when someone “never exceed[s] six hours of work” in the workweek. Id. at 2. An employer “causes” someone to work when they “affirmatively seek to motivate an employee’s forsaking rest.” Id. at 22. The law does not prohibit an employer from allowing an employee to work extra days of their own volition.
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