Yes, You Have to Pay for That! California Supreme Court Finds Certain Security Screening Time, Travel Time Thereafter, and On-Site Meal Breaks are Compensable
Posted June 13, 2024

On March 25, 2024, the Supreme Court of California in Huerta v. CSI Electrical Contractors, Inc., answered three questions that were submitted to it by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit concerning what is compensable time in California. As expected, the Supreme Court’s answers aligned with its prior rulings, which tend to find employee time at work is compensable.

First, the Supreme Court held that compensable “hours worked” includes the time an employee spends on an employer’s premises awaiting and undergoing an employer-mandated exit procedure. In this case, that included the employer’s visual inspection of the employee’s personal vehicle for the employer’s own benefit (checking for theft of tools and endangered species from the worksite). With a few exceptions, California’s wage and hour laws define “hours worked” as “the time during which an employee is subject to the control of an employer, and includes all time the employee is suffered or permitted to work, whether or not required to do so.” The key question in such cases is whether the employee is subject to the employer’s control. In a similar holding in Frlekin v. Apple, Inc. (2020), the Supreme Court found that the time Apple employees spent waiting for and undergoing security screenings/bag checks was compensable. Similarly, the California Department of Industrial Relations previously indicated that time employees spent completing COVID-19 symptom questionnaires and undergoing temperature screenings before entering their workspace was compensable.

Second, the Supreme Court held that the time an employee spends traveling between the security gate and the employee parking lots may be compensable as “employer-mandated travel” if the security gate was found to be the first location where the employee’s presence was required for an employment-related reason other than the practical necessity of accessing the worksite. Relevant factors to consider include what purpose is served by the employee’s presence at the location (i.e., is the employee doing something for the employer’s benefit or merely traveling through a threshold to get to work?), what activities occur there, and how much time does the employee spend there. The Supreme Court’s finding is no surprise. A similar scenario often arises with construction crews that visit the yard before proceeding to a secondary worksite. An employee who conducts any work at the yard (loading tools or equipment, etc.), would begin their workday at the yard and therefore the drive time to the worksite would be compensable travel time. On the other hand, if an employee meets a supervisor voluntarily at the yard for the sole purpose of catching a ride to the worksite in a company vehicle (to save on gas and wear/tear on the employee’s personal vehicle), and conducts no work before reaching the worksite, the drive time between the yard and the worksite is likely part of the regular commute and likely not compensable.

Notably, with regard to whether the time spent traveling from the security gate to the parking lot was compensable, the Supreme Court rejected the employee’s argument that the time was compensable as “hours worked” simply because the employer imposed ordinary workplace rules regarding the premises. In Huerta, after entering through the security gate, there were various rules of the road including a speed limit, a requirement that employees travel only on specific roads, noise limitations for the protection of local wildlife, etc. The Court found these types of regulations did not create the requisite level of employer control in and of themselves so as to render the time compensable.

Third, the California Supreme Court held that when an employee is covered by a collective bargaining agreement (“CBA”) that complies with requirements essential for utilizing the exceptions to the meal break rules provided in Labor Code section 512 and Wage Order No. 16, where the CBA provides the employee with an “unpaid meal period,” that time is nonetheless compensable as “hours worked” if the employer prohibits the employee from leaving the employer’s premises or leaving a designated area during the meal period. The Supreme Court reasoned that although there are express exceptions to the meal break rules when a compliant CBA is in place, there is no similar exception to Labor Code section 1194, which requires employees to be paid at least minimum wage for all hours worked. If an employee cannot leave the premises during meal breaks, they remain under the employer’s control and the time is compensable.

This third holding aligns with the rules surrounding on-duty meal break agreements. If the nature of the work requires an employee to remain on-site (which only applies in very limited circumstances, such as a lone security guard in a remote location who cannot leave their post), a voluntary on-duty meal break agreement may be appropriate. That agreement only allows the employer to keep the employee onsite, however. The meal time is compensable and all other meal break rules regarding start time and length apply.

Although the Huerta opinion was decided based upon provisions in Industrial Welfare Commission (“IWC”) Wage Order. No. 16, which governs wages, hours and working conditions in the construction, drilling, logging and mining industries, employers should expect similar findings in other industries. The IWC rules and definitions often overlap and the above closely aligns with California’s trend to favor employee compensation in almost all circumstances.

In order to ensure that employee time is properly tracked and compensated, employers should:

  1. Consider relocating time clocks, if possible, so employees clock in before incoming screening procedures and after outgoing screenings.
  2. Consider methods to ensure that any search process is streamlined and moves quickly to avoid time spent waiting in line, excessive overtime and other wage and hour issues.
  3. Have a legally-compliant written policy prohibiting off-the-clock work.
  4. Train supervisors and managers to pay attention and watch for employees conducting any work off-the-clock. In addition to screening procedures discussed in the Huerta case above, this often arises when hourly employees are responding to calls, emails and text messages when off-duty. Specifically instruct your supervisors and managers to not contact hourly employees during off-duty hours. If it must occur, employers should pay the time and, if necessary, implement reminders and discipline to stop it from happening in the future.

The above summary is for general information purposes only. This information is not meant to substitute for legal counsel as to any specific facts or circumstances.

For questions regarding wage and hour issues or other employment law needs, contact the attorneys at LightGabler LLP.

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