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Statutory Interpretation and Employment Laws

Statutory Interpretation (Cartoon)


As a recent Ninth Circuit case (Mendoza v. Nordstrom) illustrates, sometimes even straightforward concepts give employers — and Courts — fits when they’re written into laws or regulations.  California adopted laws intended to “avoid overworking employees by providing a regular day of rest in most circumstances.”  The statute says “[e]very person employed in any occupation of labor is entitled to one day’s rest therefrom in seven,” but an exemption to the day-of-rest requirement exists “when the total hours of employment do not exceed 30 hours in any week or six hours in any one day thereof.”  California Labor Code sections 551 and 556, respectively.  And an employer may not “cause his employees to work more than six days in seven.”  California Labor Code section 552.  Assume an employee has the following schedule, which parenthetically shows the number of hours worked on each workday.

Sunday Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday
OFF WORK (8) WORK (9) WORK (5) WORK (8) WORK (8) WORK (8)

Has the employer violated section 551?  It depends.  First of all, Section 551 is unclear about whether the required day of rest is calculated on a rolling basis for any consecutive seven-day period, or calculated based on a seven-day workweek.  If it’s the former, the employer has violated the law; if it’s the latter, the employer has not violated the law.  The Court notes that the statutory history can support either interpretation.

Second of all, there’s the section 556 exemption to consider.  Our hypothetical employee worked only five hours on the first Wednesday in the chart above, and section 556 exempts employers from having to give a day-of-rest if an employee’s total hours “do not exceed 30 hours in any week or six hours in any one day thereof.”  If “any” in section 556 means “any single day,” then the exemption applies.  If “any” in section 556 means “each” or “all,” then the exemption does not apply.  While the Court notes that the former interpretation is “the more natural reading,”1That is, “any” would carry the same meaning in section 556 that it does in the phrase “pick any card from the deck” it also notes, persuasively, that the latter interpretation is very plausible.2That is, “any” would carry the same meaning in section 556 that it does in the phrase “any child knows the answer to that simple question.”  Both interpretations are plausible, and there is no statutory history or California appellate case-law providing guidance on this point.

Finally, assume that, on the Sunday our hypothetical employee worked 9 hours, he was covering a coworker’s shift at that coworker’s request, without being pushed to work a seventh straight day by the employer.  Under section 552, an employer must not “cause” its employees to work more than six days in seven.  Has the employer violated section 552?  Again, it depends.  Does “cause” mean: force, coerce, pressure, schedule, encourage, reward, permit, or something else?  As the Court notes, it could mean a lot of things.

To “cause” can mean to “induce,” … so is it enough for an employer to encourage or reward an employee who agrees to work additional consecutive days?  In another context, causation is defined in terms of the “natural and probable consequence” of one’s action. … Is it enough for an employer to permit employees to trade shifts voluntarily, when a natural and probable consequence may be that an employee works more than the day-of-rest statutes allow?

Once again, the Court notes that the statutory text is unclear, and no legislative or appellate decision clarifies the issue.

These are open questions, unanswered by the statute’s text or history or supporting case-law, and whichever interpretation is chosen will have widespread consequences.3  The Court noted that, as to all these questions, “[t]he consequences of any interpretation of the day-of-rest statutes will have profound legal, economic, and practical consequences for employers and employees throughout the state of California and will govern the outcome of many disputes in both state and federal courts in the Ninth Circuit.”  Here, the Ninth Circuit certified the questions to the California Supreme Court, to get clarity on the law’s meaning.  Regardless of what particular interpretation is ultimately adopted, the overarching point remains: Even supposedly simple, straightforward statutes can present vexing issues for employers.  Consulting with competent employment counsel is critical for employers who must navigate these sometimes ambiguous laws and rules.

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