Last week, the California Supreme Court issued a ruling on a California Wage Order requirement that employers provide “suitable seats” for employees when the “nature of the work reasonably permits the use of seats.” The consolidated decision says employers have to provide seating where employee tasks performed at a particular location reasonably permit sitting, and where providing a seat would not interfere with the performance of standing tasks.

Background: Taking a Stand for Seats

Nykeya Kilby worked as a Clerk/Cashier for CVS Pharmacy, Inc. Sometimes she moved around the store, gathered shopping carts, and restocked display cases, but she spent 90% of her workday at the cash register. Kemah Henderson worked as a teller at JPMorgan Chase Bank. Sometimes she escorted customers to safety deposit boxes, worked the drive-up teller window, and checked to ensure that ATMs were working properly, but she spent the majority of her time at her teller window. Neither company provided the plaintiffs with seats. CVS’s business judgment was that standing promotes excellent customer service.

Kilby and Henderson stood up for themselves—and others—by seeking to represent CVS cashier and JPMorgan teller classes in federal district court for violation of California’s “suitable seating” requirements. But the district court denied class certification and granted summary judgment to CVS, since the “‘nature of the work’ performed by an employee must be considered in light of that individual’s entire range of assigned duties” and that “courts should consider an employer’s ‘business judgment.’”

On appeal, the Ninth Circuit sat this one out. It noted the “lack of any controlling California precedent” and that the “nature of the work,” “reasonably permits,” or “suitable seats” language was not defined. So it asked for the California Supreme Court’s interpretation.

The Decision: It Definitely Depends

The California Supreme Court addressed the undefined terms:

First, it held that the “nature of the work” refers to tasks performed at a given location for which a right to a suitable seat is claimed. In rejecting both an “all-or-nothing approach” and a “single task” approach that would be “too narrow,” it said trial courts should look to the “actual tasks performed, or reasonably expected to be performed,” rather than “abstract characterizations, job titles, or descriptions that may or may not reflect the actual work performed.”

Second, the Cal Supremes concluded that whether the nature of the work “reasonably permits” sitting is determined objectively based on the “totality of the circumstances.” An employer’s business judgment, the physical layout of the workplace, and the “feasibility” of providing seats—including “whether providing a seat would unduly interfere with other standing tasks, whether the frequency of transition from sitting to standing may interfere with the work, or whether seated work would impact the quality and effectiveness of overall job performance”—all should be considered. The court did caution that whether an employer would “unreasonably design a workspace” to deny a seat that might otherwise be reasonably suited for certain tasks also should be considered.

Third, the court effectively suggested that what would be “suitable seating” depends, by ruling that “an employer seeking to be excused from the requirement bears the burden of showing compliance is infeasible because no suitable seating exists.”

The Takeaway: What It Means for California Employers

While Kilby/Henderson provides some guidance on “suitable seating” rules, the case now requires an inquiry focusing on each particular location where an employee works—as opposed to generally analyzing an employee’s entire set of job tasks. And while the California Supreme Court validated the employer’s position that “business judgment” and store layouts must be considered, those factors are relevant, but not dispositive.

So it’s all clear: “the nature of the work” depends on any individual employee’s actual work, whether it “reasonably permits” sitting depends on a totality of work factors, and what constitutes “suitable seating” depends on what is infeasible in a particular workplace.

In the end, although the California Supreme Court may have affirmed the viability of a cause of action for suitable seating, employers might stand and rejoice. The required location-specific analysis in seating may now be so individualized that class actions across classifications and locations are no longer “suitable.”