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California's top court tells employers to give workers a chair

Pamela Bowlin, a retired CVS cashier, says the years she spent being forced to stand while waiting on customers took their toll.

“At the end of the day, I would be exhausted from standing in one place for hours and my legs would ache,” Bowlin said in a sworn declaration. “I also suffered from varicose veins which were painful, especially when standing.”

On Monday, the California Supreme Court told workers like Bowlin — perhaps millions of them — in effect that they could take a load off.

Bowlin had joined a class-action lawsuit against the pharmacy chain, one of dozens filed in California during the last several years against corporations that required workers to stand. In a unanimous ruling Monday, the court clarified labor law in a way that is likely to make it more difficult for companies to deny workers a chair.

“There is no principled reason for denying an employee a seat when he spends a substantial part of his workday at a single location performing tasks that could reasonably be done while seated, merely because his job duties include other tasks that must be done standing,” Justice Carol A. Corrigan wrote for the court.

Whether a worker is entitled to a seat depends on “the totality of the circumstances,” including whether a task can be performed from a chair, whether seating the worker would interfere with job performance and whether the physical layout of the work space is conducive to seating, the court said.

An employer may not design a work space to “further a preference for standing” and must consider whether it could be reasonably changed to accommodate a chair or stool, the court said.

“If the nature of the work reasonably permits seated work,” the court said, the law “unambiguously states employees ‘shall be provided with suitable seats.'”

The issue reached the state's top high court in response to questions from the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which is reviewing three pending class-action cases by workers. The 9th Circuit asked the California court to clarify state law.

Michael Rubin, who represented workers in the cases before the state high court and the 9th Circuit, said Monday's decision would have a “huge impact” and affect “almost every industry” in the state, especially retail.

“Employers can no longer force workers to stand at the job all day in a fixed location when the actual job tasks could be performed while seating,” he said.

Most large retailers require checkout cashiers to stand because of a perception that customers regard upright workers as more attentive and professional, Rubin said. Now employers will have “a very strong incentive to provide seats to workers whose tasks reasonably permit the use of seats,” he said.

Although retail clerks are demanding seats, office workers confined to chairs have been increasingly asking for standing desks. Rubin, who works at such a desk, said ergonomic experts say it is best to both sit and stand during the workday.

“This isn't forcing someone to sit rather than stand,” Rubin said. “It is making seating available for workers to use when they chose to.”

The class actions directly affected by the decision involve tens of thousands of workers in California, but the ruling will affect millions, Rubin said.

UC Hastings professor Reuel Schiller, an expert in employment law, said the court decision seemed “clearly to be a victory for workers.”

“Employers are going to have to come up with a better reason than a bald assertion that it is more professional for employees to stand,” Schiller said.

Jamie Workman, who worked for CVS from October 2009 to March 2011 as a cashier in Rocklin, Calif., said she was denied a seat even after she became pregnant and standing made her feet and legs swell.

One day, her shift leader gave her a stool from the break room to use at the cash register, she said in a sworn statement. She said she was able to do her job well on the stool.

“After I worked about half my shift with the stool, my store manager told me I was not allowed to sit,” she said. “I had to leave on my maternity leave early because CVS would not allow me to sit and it became too difficult for me to stand all day.”

Alicia Salinas, 23, a grocery cashier in Los Angeles, said she was always told that employees should be standing, not sitting. A seated worker may look lazy or, even worse, become lazy, she said.

But after working as a cashier for three years, she said, she now sees the value of a stool.

“Most of the time I'm standing for eight hours,” she said in an interview, sipping a cold coffee drink during her break. “Sometimes I'm like, ‘Ouch, I wish I could sit down right now.'”

She said Monday's ruling was good because employers may now give workers the option of sitting.

The suits binding in the 9th Circuit were filed by workers against CVS Pharmacy Inc., Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and JPMorgan Chase Bank.

Several lawyers for employers said they were not authorized to speak about the ruling. CVS spokesman Mike DeAngelis said in an emailed statement that the company has already complied with the requirements set down in the ruling.

“CVS Health is pleased with the California Supreme Court's ruling in this matter,” he said.

Katherine M. Forster, who represented the Chamber of Commerce in the case, said the decision still permits customer service and the physical layout of a work space to be considered in determining whether an employer will be forced to provide a seat.

“We are hopeful this will lead to common sense prevailing,” she said.

maura.dolan@latimes.com

Twitter: @mauradolan

ruben.vives@latimes.com

Twitter: @LATvives

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Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times

UPDATE

This story was updated with new detail throughout.

This story was originally published at 12:03 p.m.