In a highly anticipated decision clarifying a state wage order that defines working time, the California Supreme Court ruled in early January that employers have to pay workers for all the time they spend on a job-site, including time spent sleeping – a higher standard than that required by Federal law.

In Tim Mendiola et al., v. CPS Security Solutions, Inc. et al., the plaintiff brought wage and hour claims on behalf of a class of live-in security guards at construction sites who were on duty between 16 and 24 hours in a given day. On weekdays, most employees were on duty for a total of 16 hours – 8 hours of patrol and 8 hours of on-call time where they were able to attend to personal activities. CPS only paid its guards for on-call time where the guard was actively investigating an issue. On weekends, the guards were on-duty for 24 hours, with 8 hours of sleeping time deducted from their pay.

A California Appeals Court found that all of the weekday on-call time was compensable, but allowed for CPS to deduct 8 hours of sleeping time for weekend days when the guards were on-duty for 24 hours. California courts have previously held that employees working 24-hour shifts can have up to 8 hours of sleep time excluded from their paychecks, as long as there is a valid agreement to do so between the employees and their employer, and they get at least 5 hours of uninterrupted sleep.

The California Supreme Court affirmed that portion of the Appeals Court decision that found weekday on-call time compensable, but reversed as to the employer’s ability to deduct sleeping time. The high court found that workers are still under the employer’s control during that time, and that the company benefits from their guards’ presence at work sites, even if sleeping.

The decision highlights the careful analysis required of employers where state standards conflict with federal law. The employer in this case obtained permission from the California Labor Commissioner before setting up its overnight staffing, and had relied on federal law that allows much of this time to be excluded from hours worked. Still, the California Supreme Court found the plan illegal.