New Ruling Heightens Employers’ Duty to “Provide” Suitable Seating
California regulations have long declared that California employees “shall be provided with suitable seats when the nature of the work reasonably permits the use of a seat.” But, exactly how and when to provide such seating remains unclear. Many employers may be surprised to learn their seating policies are inadequate in the eyes of at least one California court. In Meda v. Autozone, Inc. (2022), California’s 2nd District Court of Appeal recently ruled that compliance with the seating mandate may depend upon factors as varied as where the employer placed available chairs and how often other employees used such chairs.
Meda v. Autozone, Inc.
The plaintiff in the lawsuit, Monica Meda, was employed by Autozone as a part-time sales associate at the cashier and parts counter workstations for approximately six months until her resignation. During her employment, she had undeniably used a chair at the cashier counter while recovering from injury. Yet after leaving her employment, the plaintiff brought forth a Labor Code Private Attorneys General Act (PAGA) lawsuit alleging that the employer failed to “provide” her and other aggrieved employees with suitable seating during their work time.
The Court of Appeal determined that the plaintiff stated a prima facie case of an inadequate seating practice notwithstanding her apparent option to use a chair upon request. The Court ruled that it was unclear whether the employer’s decision to keep two raised chairs at the manager’s station area, down a hallway, separated, and out of sight, met the “provided” standard under the applicable wage orders.
Wage Order 7-2001, paragraph 14(A) requires:
“All working employees shall be provided with suitable seats when the nature of the work reasonably permits the use of seats.”
Accordingly, the Court examined the Wage Order’s language to determine its scope and purpose. The term “provide” in the Wage Order was observed to mean “present or ready for immediate use.” As a result, the Meda Court ultimately decided that because the two raised chairs were not placed in the “immediate vicinity” of the employees’ workstations, it was reasonably inferable that seats were not made available and thus not “provided,” to the employees.
Suitable Seating Requirement
While the Meda decision and prior cases discussing suitable seating have focused on enforcement of the seating mandate in the retail industry, the mandate affects other sectors. As discussed in Meda v. Autozone, Inc., employees in professional, technical, clerical, mechanical, and other similar occupations are also entitled to “suitable seating.” See Cal. Code Regs. tit. 8, § 11040. Therefore, a large number of California employers are impacted by this latest decision and its nuances.
It’s important for all California employers to ensure effective and lawful work policies and practices are in place to avoid giving rise to a cause of action for violation of the seating requirement. For one, employees should never be made to feel discouraged or dissuaded from using any form of seating when and where reasonably permitted by the nature of the work. This can be prevented by informing employees that seats are available for their use and locating seats nearby and in visible proximity to the employees’ workstations.
Additional safe practices include conspicuously posting a seating policy expressly informing employees of their rights and communicating such to the employees through onboarding at employee meetings. A detailed explanation of the seating policy in the workplace will prevent employees from erroneously believing that they could only use a seat as an accommodation, such as for a temporary injury. Workplace policies and practices should make clear that seats are generally available to employees. Enough seats should be present for every working employee at the same time where the nature of the work reasonably permits it.
Courts look at the actual tasks performed or reasonably expected to be performed, by the employees when determining if the nature of the work reasonably permits the use of seats. A written policy stating that standing is required for a certain position may be unenforceable if the tasks to be performed can be done from a chair.
The Meda decision demonstrates how necessary it is for California employers to (1) place such reasonable seating in or near the employees’ workstations where it is visible and accessible and (2) expressly inform their employees of seating availability and have a conspicuous seating policy for easy reference. Employees are not required to first inquire whether suitable seating is available before a violation of the wage order seating requirement, and therefore, employers’ efforts to provide such information will become relevant in defending such claims.