SAN FRANCISCO — Employers cannot deny a worker a place to sit just because they prefer the person stand, and they must consider the employee's work station, not their overall duties, when determining whether to provide a seat, the California Supreme Court said Monday.
The court's opinion stemmed from lawsuits brought by cashiers at the CVS drugstore chain and tellers at Chase Bank who said they were wrongly denied a place to sit while working. Experts called the opinion a victory for the cashiers and tellers.
"When all is said and done, the burden of proof is going to be on employers in most situations to determine why a seat would not be reasonable," said Stephen Hirschfeld, a San Francisco-based labor lawyer who advises companies.
Companies likely will err on the side of providing a seat after Monday's opinion, and those facing similar lawsuits will settle, Hirschfeld said.
The ruling is aimed at clarifying state labor regulations that require employers in California to provide workers with "suitable seats" when the nature of their work reasonably permits the use of seats.
CVS and Chase Bank argued the rules require a holistic approach that determines the nature of employees' work by considering the entire range of tasks they perform.
In CVS' case, cashiers also stock shelves and perform other tasks that require them to stand. The company's holistic approach would allow CVS to classify their jobs as "standing jobs" and deny them seats while working, the California Supreme Court said.
But the court rejected that interpretation, saying it ignored the "duration of those tasks, as well as where, and how often, they are performed." It instead called for an assessment of employees' tasks and duties at particular work stations, such as a cash registers or teller windows, when determining whether they should get a place to sit.
Michael Rubin, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said the decision was a victory for all workers who have been denied a place to sit while they perform repetitive tasks in fixed locations.
"For the millions of California worker in the retail industry, this is going to mean that in the next few weeks, their employers will start giving them seats, which will promote health and comfort," he said.
The court did find that some situations might make seating at work unfeasible, like if it interferes with standing tasks or affects overall job performance. CVS and Chase had argued employees provide better customer service while standing.
Suzanne Alexander, a spokeswoman for JP Morgan Chase, declined to comment. CVS Health spokesman Michael DeAngelis said CVS was pleased with the California Supreme Court's ruling. The company's policies are consistent with the "long-understood, reasonable interpretation of the law" that employers can consider factors such as their desire to provide prompt and efficient customer service when deciding whether seating is appropriate.
"The big loss for the plaintiffs here is that business judgment is allowed as one of the objective factors in evaluating whether to provide seats," said Reuel Schiller, a labor law professor at the University of California, Hastings in San Francisco. Still, Schiller said the opinion overall favored plaintiffs.
The CVS and Chase Bank lawsuits are now before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. That court asked the California Supreme Court to determine whether each task employees perform must be evaluated to determine whether it qualifies for a seat. The 9th Circuit also asked whether the employer's judgment about whether the employee should stand must be taken into consideration.