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California high court addresses simple employment issue

Although some California employers might -- and undoubtedly will -- continue to argue that a matter recently ruled upon by the California Supreme Court is nuanced and quite complex, legions of workers in the state will certainly counter that it is anything but complicated.

In fact, they have been making that claim for some time now, to wit: When my back is aching and my feet are killing me, can I just sit down while continuing to perform my duties?

That direct and simple request is a common plea in California, with increasingly more worker entreaties being made pursuant to class action lawsuits against state employers. The above-noted court ruling, which was issued earlier this month, was in response to such a suit, which a media report noted was simply "one of dozens filed in California during the last several years."

As that article pointed out, employers have often offered up the rationale that customers perceive standing workers -- especially those who interact with the public, such as cashiers -- as more professional than those who are seated.

Although that might true, that defense against a chair for a tired worker will no longer suffice automatically to keep that employee on his or her feet.

The court's ruling -- unanimously delivered in a case involving the CVS pharmacy chain and in response to a federal court's request that California law on the matter be clarified -- noted "no principled reason" for refusing to let a worker sit if that employee is doing work "that could reasonably be done while seated."

The ruling is essentially a balancing standard marked by reasonableness based on what the court termed "the totality of the circumstances."

Where those reasonably allow for seated work, the court noted, California law requires that option for a worker. It is important to recognize that regulation of physical work environments may be moving beyond just safety issues. Employers need to be aware of a trend towards disallowing rules that cause workers discomfort or inconvenience, certainly where there is "no principled reason" for the rule.

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