by Jennifer R. Lucas and Jonathan R. Babione

As we saw a few days ago (1/6/2020) when the 9th Circuit handed down its opinion in Ridgeway v. Walmart Inc., under certain circumstances, California law may require trucking companies to pay drivers for off-the-clock layover time.  The critical question is whether the employer exercises control over the drivers during those breaks.  Unfortunately, California statutory law does not clearly define what it means to “exercise control,” and case law is likewise far from clear about it.

Employers in California are required to pay at least minimum wage to employees for all hours worked, including all the time during which an employer exercises control over the employee.   Importantly, an employee “does not have to be working during that time to be compensated.”  California courts construe worker-protection laws liberally “with an eye to promoting such protection.”  California courts generally agree that the question of control boils down to whether the employee may use break or non-work time however he or she would like.

The Ridgeway case focuses on truck driver “Layovers,” defined by Wal-Mart’s policy as times when drivers were “taking a mandatory DOT break and not being paid in conjunction with any other type of pay.”  The handbook also stated that if a driver wanted to spend a layover at his or her home, employer approval must be obtained first.  Because Wal-Mart’s policy restricted drivers’ freedom of movement by prohibiting drivers from making a unilateral decision to spend layovers at home, the court held that Wal-Mart had asserted control over drivers’ layover time.  Under California law, the court held that Wal-Mart must pay them for that time. The court noted that if Wal-Mart’s policies were applied as written, drivers may have been free to take a shower or go to a movie while on layovers, but drivers were not free, without receiving permission, to go home to see a pet, to eat a meal at their kitchen table, or to watch television in their own living room.  As a result, the court held that employee liberty and freedom of movement during layovers was controlled by Wal-Mart.  The court attached importance to the fact that Wal-Mart retained the right to refuse drivers the option to go home.  If Wal-Mart had simply required the drivers to provide notice, the court implied that the rule would not restrict drivers’ freedom and there might have been a different result.

Wal-Mart argued that surely, the law cannot require a driver to be compensated for periods when state and federal law compel drivers not to work.  The court conceded that Wal-Mart’s argument had logical appeal, but held that under the circumstances, California law required that the drivers must be paid for that time.

In light of Ridgeway, if a trucking company imposes any restrictions on how drivers may spend layover (or other) time, it must pay drivers at least minimum wage for the entire time during which any restriction is in place.  Conversely, if no restrictions are imposed on drivers while they are off the clock for layovers, payment for layover time is not required.

Whether to pay drivers for layover time can be a complex analysis, and California law offers little clear guidance.  Nevertheless, we welcome your questions and concerns as we continue to partner with you in protecting your business.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.