Despite a longstanding requirement that California employers must “provide[]” suitable seats for their employees when the work allows for it, no published California authority has clarified what steps an employer must take to “provide” such seats.

This was the Second District Court of Appeal’s observation in Meda v. AutoZone, Inc. (July 19, 2022, B311398) ___ Cal.App.5th ___, which reversed an employer’s summary judgment victory. Specifically, the appeals court held that where an employer does not expressly tell its employees that they may use seats, and does not place seat(s) at workstations, the inquiry into whether the employer “provided” suitable seats may be fact-intensive and depend on many job- and workplace-specific factors. Thus, the lower court’s summary judgment was inappropriate, and the case was remanded for further proceedings.

Is Anybody Sitting Here?

Central to the facts were two raised chairs that were typically found at raised workstations near the manager’s area of an AutoZone store, which was operated by defendant-respondent. The manager’s area had no door but was separate and hidden from the cashier area and parts counters where the sales associates worked.

Plaintiff Monica Meda was a sales associate and primarily answered customers’ questions and located auto parts. She could reportedly perform her work at the parts counter and cashier workstations (together, the “front counters”) while seated. However, because the front counters were elevated, a raised chair or stool was needed, and a desk-height chair was too low for the counter.

One possible solution: The raised chairs in the manager area.

But Meda was under the impression that the manager-area chairs were available only as accommodations. One time she had used a raised chair briefly after injuring her foot, and she had “never” seen employees sitting at the front counters (though she once observed a pregnant employee using a small stool to stock shelves). Beyond the foot injury, Meda never directly requested permission to use a raised chair at the front counters; and no one ever told her that she was allowed or prohibited from doing so.

Months after quitting, Meda filed a PAGA complaint alleging AutoZone’s failure to provide suitable seats at the front counters, in violation of Industrial Welfare Commission wage order No. 7-2001 paragraph 14(A).

AutoZone asserted it had provided suitable seating because Meda had access to the two raised chairs in the manager area. The lower court agreed, concluding that the word “provide” in the IWC wage order means “make available.” In its reversal, the Second District’s panel recognized the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement’s historical consideration of workplace facts and conditions in determining compliance with Section 14. This was also true of other cases’ Section 14 analyses, as well as Brinker Rest. Corp. v. Superior Court (2012) 53 Cal.4th 1004, which examined employer provision of meal breaks (versus suitable seating) but which the Second District deemed “useful guidance.”

Triable issues of material fact therefore included:

  • Manager-area chairs were not “in the immediate vicinity” of the front counters, meaning that employees might feel uncomfortable taking them from the manager area;
  • Meda had observed the store manager using the raised chairs, allowing for a reasonable inference that they were not meant for the front counters; and
  • No other employee had used a raised chair at the front counter, allowing for the reasonable inference that this was prohibited.

Industrial Welfare Commission (IWC) Wage Orders

As a reminder, seventeen (17) different wage orders govern California employers, and the applicable wage order depends on the industry (e.g., Wage Order No. 7 governs the “Mercantile Industry”). Nearly all of these wage orders—except for agricultural and certain labor-intensive industries —require suitable seating for employees, pursuant to Section 14(A)–(B), which reads as follows:

14.

SEATS

(A) All working employees shall be provided with suitable seats when the nature of the work reasonably permits the use of seats.

(B) When employees are not engaged in the active duties of their employment and the nature of the work requires standing, an adequate number of suitable seats shall be placed in reasonable proximity to the work area and employees shall be permitted to use such seats when it does not interfere with the performance of their duties.

(IWC Wage Order 7-2000 (Cal. Code Regs., tit. 8, § 11070, subd. 14.))

While AutoZone centered on Section 14(A), the Second District also recently considered Section 14(B) in a case involving “lulls in [employees’] operation,” and sided with the employer, as CEB earlier reported.

But the panel in AutoZone was unable to conclude that AutoZone as an employer had “provided” seats and complied with Section 14(A).

What Can Employers Learn from AutoZone?

AutoZone should be a wake-up call to employers that the mere presence of chairs, stools, benches, couches, loveseats and whatnot in the mere vicinity of employees’ workplaces may be insufficient to meet the “provided” requirement of Section 14(A). Thus, employers may wish to consider the following:

  • Develop a written seating policy specific to the workplace layout, and train managers accordingly. (At one point, AutoZone had sent a “management action plan” to managers “directing them to ensure that their store had two stools available as needed and advising them that the stools could be placed by the manager’s office, at the commercial desk, or by the end of the cashier workstation.” But AutoZone did not offer training regarding its policy, and the policy was not included in the employee handbook.)
  • An employer is capable of violating Section 14 even if the employee never inquires about seating. (In AutoZone, the court rejected AutoZone’s belief that an employee must ask about suitable seating before a wage order violation can be established.)
  • Brinker and its analyses on “providing” meal breaks may offer some guidance in complying with Section 14(A). At a minimum, the employer must not impede or discourage employees from sitting when their work allows for it.

For further discussion of suitable seating requirements in California, including PAGA claims for violations thereof, see CEB’s Advising California Employers and Employees § 5.89G and California Wage and Hour: Law and Litigation § 1.54.

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