Seyfarth Synopsis: Last month in Mendoza v. Nordstrom, Inc., the California Supreme Court addressed three questions about California’s “day of rest” statutes that prohibit employers from causing employees “to work more than six days in seven.” California employers can now rest assured that (1) employees are entitled to one day of rest during each workweek, not one day of rest in every rolling seven days; (2) an exception permits employers to require work each day of a workweek if every daily shift in that workweek is no more than six hours; and (3) while employers cannot require employees to forgo a day of rest, employees remain free to choose to work all seven days in a workweek.

California’s “Day of Rest” Provisions

In the beginning (or 80 years ago), the California legislature created the Labor Code. Sections 551 and 552 codified 19th century laws—the “day of rest” provisions—that entitle all in employment to “one day’s rest therefrom in seven” and prohibit an employer to “cause his employees to work more than six days in seven.” Later, the lawmakers said, let there be a six-hour exception, and Section 556 made the day of rest provisions inapplicable “when the total hours of employment do not exceed 30 hours in any week or six hours in any day thereof.”

The Alleged Violations in Mendoza

Two former Nordstrom employees, Chris Mendoza and Megan Gordon, occasionally were asked to fill in for other employees. As a result, they sometimes worked more than six consecutive days. During those weeks, some of their shifts were six hours or less.

Though the day of rest provisions historically lacked a private right of action, Mendoza and Gordon—enabled by California’s private attorneys general statute—sued in federal district court for alleged violations of Sections 551 and 552.

The district court initially rejected the former barista and sales associates’ claims—both because they were not required to work the fill-in shifts and because they had worked some less than six hour shifts during the at-issue weeks. The plaintiffs appealed.

Interpreting the Day of Rest Provisions

Uncertain how California courts would interpret the statutes, the Ninth Circuit asked for the California Supreme Court’s assistance. The Justices addressed and resolved three questions:

1. Is the “day of rest” calculated by the seven-day workweek, or does it apply on a rolling basis to any seven-consecutive-day period?

A day of rest is guaranteed for each seven-day, employer-established workweek, not for any “rolling” seven-day period.

In reaching this result, the Mendoza court concluded that “the Legislature intended to ensure employees … a day of rest each week, not to prevent them from ever working more than six consecutive days at any one time.” Thus, periods of more than six consecutive days of work that stretch across more than one workweek are not per se prohibited.

Of more general interest, in adopting the workweek as the framework for counting the seven days the California Supreme Court made an observation that could be welcome to employers in future cases by indicating that this interpretation would be the one most congenial to an employer’s administration of time records.

2. Does the Section 556 exception apply so long as an employee works six hours or less on at least one day of the applicable workweek, or does it apply only when an employee works no more than six hours on each and every day of the workweek?

The “six hour” exception applies only when an employee works no more than 30 hours in the workweek and no more than six hours on each day of the workweek.

3. What does it mean for an employer to “cause” an employee to go without a day of rest?

“[A]n employer’s obligation is to apprise employees of their entitlement to a day of rest and thereafter to maintain absolute neutrality as to the exercise of that right.” The Court explained that an employer is not liable simply because an employee chooses to work a seventh day; rather, an employer “causes” an employee to go without a day of rest when it induces the employee to forgo an entitled day of rest. In other words, employers cannot coerce employees to forgo a day of rest, but they will not face liability if an employee, who is aware of the rest-day requirements, nonetheless chooses to work seven days in a row.

Again, employers likely appreciate the Justices’ rejection of the plaintiffs’ ambitious argument that the Labor Code should always be interpreted in such a way as to maximize liability. The Court recognized that an expansive interpretation is improper when the legislative intent indicates a narrower reading of the statute.

Moreover, the decision does protect employees and their right to choose. So on the seventh day, let them rest—or work. It’s up to them.

Lessons Learned for Employers

Employers nonetheless should review their scheduling practices to assess whether employees (exempt and non-exempt) work all seven days in any employer-defined workweek. Employers should also ensure that their employment policies notify employees of their right to a “day of rest” so they can establish that an employee made an informed decision to forgo a day of rest. Finally, employers should consider obtaining a written waiver from an employee before agreeing to allow the employee to forgo a day of rest in a given workweek.