March 28, 2024

A Lesson from the California Supreme Court on Compensable Time

A recent California Supreme Court ruling clarifies California’s Industrial Welfare Commission (IWC) Wage Order (WO) requirements entitling employees to at least minimum wage compensation for all “hours worked.”

In the case Huerta v. CSI Electrical Contractors , the Court focused on three specific questions centered on the applicability of the term ‘hours worked’ as found in WO #16.  Although WO #16 does not govern agriculture, the term ‘hours worked’ is similarly defined in all wage orders regardless of industry. The Court’s findings are therefore worth taking note of as they can be applied to similar situations across a wide array of industries/occupations, including agriculture.

Questions Addressed by the Court and its Findings:

1. Compensability of Time Spent Undergoing Employer-Mandated Exit Procedure:

  • The first question addressed by the Court was whether employee time spent on the employer’s premises awaiting/undergoing employer-mandated exit procedures is compensable as “hours worked.”
  • The Court found that employees awaiting/undergoing such procedures (e.g., time spent waiting to scan identification badges, performing vehicle inspections and then exiting a security gate) are entitled to compensation for “hours worked” as that term is defined under the applicable WO.
  • With limited exception, across all WO’s, ‘hours worked’ is defined as “the time during which an employee is subject to the control of an employer and includes all the time the employee is suffered or permitted to work, whether or not required to do so.”

2. Compensability of Travel Time:

  • The second question before the Court concerned ‘employer-mandated travel’ under WO #16 as well as ‘hours worked.’ The question was whether time spent on the employer’s premises in a personal vehicle, driving between a Security Gate and the employee parking lots, while subject to certain rules from the employer, is compensable as ‘hours worked’ or as ‘employer-mandated travel’?
  • The Court found that travel time between the Security Gate and employee parking lots is compensable as “employer-mandated travel” under section 5(A) of Wage Order No. 16 under certain circumstances (e.g., if the Security Gate is the first location where the employee’s presence is required for an employment-related reason). However, ordinary workplace rules (such as those under WO #14) imposed during travel do not render this time as “hours worked.”

3. Compensability of Unpaid Meal Periods:

  • The third and final question was whether time spent on the employer’s premises, when workers are prohibited from leaving but not required to engage in employer-mandated activities, is compensable as ‘hours worked’ within the meaning of the WO or under California Labor Code Section 1194, when that time was designated as an unpaid ‘meal period’ under a qualifying collective bargaining agreement?”
  • According to the Court, even if covered by a collective bargaining agreement providing for unpaid meal periods, time is compensable if the employer prohibits the employee from leaving the premises or designated area during the meal period, thereby preventing the employee from engaging in personal activities.

What Does It All Mean?

No matter the WO at issue, the Court’s ruling emphasizes the need to ensure that employees are accurately compensated for all hours worked, including time spent undergoing exit procedures and traveling between multiple sites on the employer’s premises. To accomplish this goal, agricultural employers should familiarize themselves with WO #14 covering agricultural occupations (or WO’s #8 [Industries Handling Products After Harvest] and #13 [Industries Preparing Agricultural Products for Market, on the Farm]); their definitions, rules governing hours and days of work, minimum wage requirements, reporting time pay, meal and lodging rules, and meal/rest period mandates.