On June 29, 2020, the California Supreme Court ruled in favor of employers in a trio of cases involving flight attendants and pilots who brought various wage and hour claims (both individual and PAGA) against their respective airline employers for non-compliant wage statements and other violations of California’s Labor Code. Each of the cases was pending in Federal Court. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals certified several specific questions relating to California employment law to the California Supreme Court to decide.
“Principal Place of Work” Is Key
The California Supreme Court recognized that from the air, the borders that divide state from state disappear. But, the Court also recognized that in our legal system, those borders still matter – “even for those who make their living flying the friendly skies.” The specific questions put to the Court related to how the laws of a single state apply to employees who perform duties across the country. The cases – Ward v. United Airlines, Inc. and Vidrio v. United Airlines, Inc. and Oman v. Delta Air Lines, Inc. – each involved airline employees who worked primarily outside of California’s territorial jurisdiction. The airline employers’ principal places of business were outside of California – but, the employees were residents of California and paid taxes here.
In each of the cases, the Court examined both the Labor Code provisions at issue (including the legislative history for those provisions) and the applicable Wage Orders. The Court determined that for pilots, flight attendants, and other interstate transportation workers who do not perform the majority of their work in any one state, one must then look to whether California serves as their “base of work operations” (regardless of their state of residence) or their “principal place of work.” It was not enough that in some instances the employees were California residents who paid taxes here, and in others, flight attendants who performed work on the ground in California during their episodic stops here. For California wage and hour employment laws to apply, the Court held to a more intricate and rigorous test.
Back To Earth – An Increasingly Interconnected World
While airlines specifically (and the transportation industry, generally) have historically confronted these kinds of issues more regularly than those in other industries, the advent of technologies that facilitate working remotely – and, the current circumstances that have mandated many businesses to transition to longer-term telecommuting– make clear that the holdings of Ward and Oman will be increasingly instructive to many, across industries. Wise employers will think ahead – examine their workforce, determine whether California wage and hour laws apply, and to whom, and figure out how to remain compliant with California law in order to avoid the costly and time-consuming litigation that can quickly result from a single misstep. We are entering the “new normal,” which requires careful forethought, dispassionate analysis, and guidance from experts like Workplace Legal.