Why it matters

The California Supreme Court has agreed to weigh in on the number of consecutive days an employee may legally work without running afoul of the state's so-called "day of rest" statute. The issue arose when two employees of Nordstrom claimed the employer required them to work for more than six consecutive days without a day off, in violation of the law. Following a bench trial, a federal court judge ruled in favor of Nordstrom. The plaintiffs appealed, but uncertain about how to interpret the statute, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals certified three questions to the state's highest court. The panel asked whether the required day of rest referenced in California's law should be calculated by the workweek or on a rolling basis for any consecutive seven-day period, also wondering about the application of a Labor Code exemption for employees who work fewer than 30 hours in a week or six hours in one day. Finally, the Ninth Circuit requested clarification about what it means for an employer to "cause" a worker to work more than six days in seven—force, coerce, pressure, schedule, encourage, reward, permit, or something else? The California Supreme Court agreed to tackle the questions, and employment lawyers should stay tuned for answers in the coming months.

Detailed discussion

In 2009, Christopher Mendoza filed suit against his former employer, Nordstrom. According to Mendoza, during his tenure as a barista at a Nordstrom espresso bar and a sales representative in the cosmetics department, the national retailer violated Sections 551 and 552 of the California Labor Code, the so-called "day of rest" law.

Section 551 provides that "[e]very person employed in any occupation of labor is entitled to one day's rest therefrom in seven," while Section 552 states that "[n]o employer of labor shall cause his employees to work more than six days in seven." California Labor Code Section 556 exempts an employer from the day of rest requirement "when the total hours [worked by an employee] do not exceed 30 hours in any week or six hours in any one day thereof."

Mendoza claimed that he worked more than six consecutive days on three occasions, one time working 11 days straight (although working fewer than six hours on two of those days), seven straight days another time (with fewer than six hours on three days), and eight consecutive days (five with fewer than six hours). On each of these occasions, Mendoza was not originally scheduled to work more than six consecutive days but did so after being asked by a coworker or supervisor to fill in for another employee.

A second employee, Megan Gordon, joined the suit in April 2011. She worked as a fitting room attendant at a Nordstrom Rack store for more than six consecutive days on one occasion, although on two of those days she worked fewer than six hours.

After a two-day bench trial, a California federal court judge sided with Nordstrom.

Section 551 applies on a rolling basis to any consecutive seven-day period rather than a workweek as defined by an employer (such as Nordstrom's Sunday-to-Saturday schedule), the court said. While that would appear to mean the defendant violated Sections 551 and 552, Labor Code Section 556 exempted Nordstrom from liability because each plaintiff worked fewer than six hours on at least one day in the consecutive seven days of work. And even if the exemption did not apply, Nordstrom did not "cause" Mendoza or Gordon to work more than seven consecutive days because they voluntarily chose to waive their rights and work extra days, the court added.

"The day of rest statutes only prohibit an employer from requiring or causing an employee to work more than six consecutive days," U.S. District Court Judge Cormac J. Carney wrote. "An employee can waive that protection if he or she wants to, which is exactly what Mr. Mendoza and Ms. Gordon did here."

This conclusion was consistent with the regulatory history of the "day of rest" law and was also confirmed by the California Supreme Court inBrinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court, where the court found that employees could waive their right to a meal break, the court explained.

Gordon and Mendoza appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

A panel of the federal appellate court considered the issue and, finding no controlling California precedent and an ambiguous statutory text, turned to the California Supreme Court for help.

The panel certified three questions to the state's highest court:

(A) California Labor Code section 551 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 seven-day period?

(B) California Labor Code section 556 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 that 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?

(C) California Labor Code section 552 provides that an employer may not "cause his employees to work more than six days in seven." What does it mean for an employer to "cause" an employee to work more than six days in seven: force, coerce, pressure, schedule, encourage, reward, permit, or something else?

The Ninth Circuit said it found the interpretations proffered by both sides plausible, discovered no useful legislative history, and unearthed no California appellate law to provide a guide, so it turned to the California Supreme Court with "the obligations of thousands of California employers, and the rights of tens of thousands of California workers … at stake."

To read the Ninth Circuit's order in Mendoza v. Nordstrom, click here.

To visit the California Supreme Court's page for Mendoza, click here.