The California Supreme Court decided Monday that workers required to ride employer-owned vehicles to and from their jobs must be paid for that travel time.
The unanimous ruling paves the way for thousands of farm workers and others to seek at least three years' back pay if they were compelled to travel in employer-owned buses to and from work sites.
More broadly, however, the decision could affect many other groups of hourly workers. Airport, mall, construction and logging workers, among others, sometimes must ride in special vans to their jobs, lawyers in the case said.
A state wage order requires compensation for time a worker spends under the control of his or her employer. In this case, the court ruled that even if farm workers could read or sleep on the bus to the fields, they were entitled to be paid for their time because they had been required by their employer to be on board.
"An employee who is subject to an employer's control does not have to be working during that time to be compensated," the court said in an opinion written by Justice Ming W. Chin.
Richard Simmons, a Los Angeles lawyer who has written books on labor law, said the ruling "affects everybody" because the court has made it clear that the state will apply its own definition of what constitutes "hours worked" rather than using a federal standard. The federal standard is considered more favorable to employers. "That is big time," Simmons said.
David A. Rosenfeld, an Oakland lawyer who represented the farm workers before the high court, said Monday's ruling also may offer protection to hourly workers "told they have to wear a beeper and remain on call."
Chin's opinion stressed that the court was not trying to discourage employers from offering free transportation to workers.
"Employers may provide optional free transportation to employees without having to pay them for their travel time," Chin wrote, "as long as employers do not require employees to use this transportation."
Still, many growers may stop offering even optional transportation out of worries over lawsuits, said James Bogart, president and general counsel of the Grower-Shipper Assn. of Central California.
"I fear it is going to discourage employers from providing a much-needed benefit to their workers," Bogart said.
Worse, he said, the ruling will "unfortunately force workers to ride in vehicles that are not registered, are not inspected for safety, that may or may not be driven by licensed drivers."
More than 60 farm laborers have died in vehicle accidents since 1994 in the central San Joaquin Valley.
Most growers provide workers with transportation but do not require them to use it, Bogart said. Farm fields are often in remote locations with little or no parking and reachable only by narrow roads.
But Rosenfeld said the buses and vans actually are intended to benefit the employer.
Workers often live close to the fields and must drive out of their way to company loading spots, he said. Growers, particularly in the Salinas and Imperial valleys, require company transportation because it enables them to decide each morning how and where to dispatch workers, according to Rosenfeld.
The state high court decision results from a lawsuit by workers for Salinas-based Royal Packing Co., a lettuce grower.
The suit seeks penalties against Royal Packing and overtime wages for the time that workers had to spend assembling at departure points and riding to and from the fields.
A Superior Court judge and a Court of Appeal had ruled against the workers.
Lewis P. Janowsky, a Newport Beach lawyer who represented the grower, said Royal Packing stopped providing the buses when the lawsuit was filed and instead contracted out with another company to provide the labor.
The grower will still be liable for three years of wages before the time the lawsuit was filed, he said. The case will now return to Monterey County Superior Court.
Janowsky noted that the court made its decision based on the wording of a wage order by the state Industrial Welfare Commission.
"The literal meaning sometimes produces a decision that is not necessarily fair or correct," he said.
Carl Borden, associate counsel of the California Farm Bureau Federation, said the decision may be "a mixed bag" for farm workers because many employers may stop offering transportation if they can't make it mandatory.
He said Monday's ruling, Morillion vs. Royal Packing (SO73725), also may be used to argue that dairy workers and others who are required to live on the premises must be compensated for all the hours spent there.
"That might be one of the unintended consequences of this case," Borden said.
Lawyers for the farm workers were unavailable for comment.