Walmart reportedly agreed to pay $65 million to settle a case brought on behalf of nearly 100,000 current and former California cashiers who claimed the company violated their rights under a state law dating back to 1911 when it failed to provide them with seating. The workers claimed Walmart, which denied any wrongdoing, breached its duty to make seating available “when the nature of the work reasonably permits.”
Walmart claimed that the nature of the cashier job did not reasonably permit seating, because placing stools or chairs at the store’s cash registers would pose a safety risk and hinder productivity. However, Walmart had a policy of offering stools to cashiers with medical conditions or disabilities, and store managers had the discretion to provide stools to cashiers on a case-by-case basis.
In a court filing, Walmart and counsel for the cashiers said the settlement, if approved, would be the largest ever under California’s unique Private Attorney General Act, which allows workers to sue their employers on behalf of the state and keep a portion of any award.
Curiously, other major retailers in California faced similar lawsuits, but Walmart did not act proactively to address this issue. Even putting aside the anticipated benefit of improved employee relations resulting from voluntary compliance, with the benefit of hindsight, one has to wonder if the cost of compliance, even if it were to result in reduced productivity, would have been less than the cost to settle.
Savvy employer takeaways: Employers need to look carefully at their duty to offer reasonable accommodations to employees and to engage in an interactive process to make sure that the employer can justify any denied accommodation.
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