California Supreme Court holds on-site, on-call time compensable

The California Supreme Court has issued an important wage-and-hour case.

In January 2015, the California Supreme Court in Mendiola v. CPS Security Solutions, Inc. held that security guards should have been paid for time spent on call in trailers on the employer's premises at construction worksites, including sleep time. The court declined to incorporate into state law federal regulations that could have allowed the sleep-time hours to be excluded from payable hours worked.

Minimum wage and overtime requirements

Since the on-call hours were held to be compensable, the guards should have been paid at least minimum wage for them and the on-call hours should have counted toward total hours worked for purposes of calculating overtime pay due. Under California law, overtime at the rate of time-and-a-half must be paid for extra hours worked after eight in a day, and after 40 in a week. (Different requirements kick in after a 12-hour shift or on the seventh straight day of work.)

Employer control is key

At issue in this case was the interpretation of Wage Order 4, a wage-and-hour regulation issued by the Industrial Welfare Commission or IWC, a California state agency. In considering whether the on-call hours were compensable, the court looked at regulatory language that an employee is on the clock when "subject to the control of an employer," whether or not actual work activity is constantly required.

The court eloquently described earlier opinions that looked at several factors to determine the extent of employer control of on-call employees in deciding whether the hours should have been paid. The opinion notes certain aspects of the security guards' on-call arrangement as persuasive:

  • They had to reside in the company-provided, on-site trailers unless a security concern or disturbance took them outside.
  • They had to immediately respond to security threats in uniform.
  • It was difficult to trade on-call shifts.
  • Even if a replacement guard was found, the original guard had to stay within 30 minutes of the worksite, keeping the employer informed of his or her location and subject to being called back to work.
  • Visitors, pets and alcohol were restricted during on-call time.
  • The guards' presence on a construction site was primarily beneficial for the employer, as the guards' "mere presence" could deter vandals and otherwise increase security.

The court also remarked that allowing the guards to engage in limited personal activities while on call like showering, reading or sleeping did not impact the overall level of employer control.

State law more generous than federal

The employer raised the issue of federal regulation that allows sleep time to be unpaid in certain similar situations. The Supreme Court declined to impose the federal standard, noting that California state law can provide greater worker wage protections than federal law does, so long as it does not "derogate" the federal standards. In addition, other wage orders specifically incorporate the federal standard, but Wage Order 4 does not, implying that the agency chose not to on purpose.

Seek legal guidance

As this case illustrates, California state and federal employment laws regulating wage-and-hour issues are complex, alone and in combination, and highly dependent on individual workplace circumstances. Accordingly, it can be important for any Californian facing such issues at work to discuss the situation with an experienced employment law attorney to determine next steps and legal options.

In San Francisco, skilled employment lawyers represent workers in a wide array of employment matters at the law firm of Baker Curtis & Schwartz, P.C.

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