To employers, it may seem like California regulates nearly everything about employment relations. Yet, surprisingly, statutes and courts in California never answered the question of when a temporary layoff becomes a “discharge” of furloughed employees. That is, until the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals did so recently in Hartstein v. Hyatt Corporation, 82 F.4th 825. The implications of this new ruling for California employers and employees are considerable.
Under the new ruling, any temporary layoff or furlough of employees without a specific return-to-work date within the employees’ regular pay period is considered a “discharge” under California Labor Code Section 201. That in turn triggers an immediate obligation for employers to pay all laid off employees all of the wages they have earned, including any pay owed for accrued vacation or Paid Time Off (“PTO”). Failure to pay in full all accrued wages, vacation and PTO when due runs the risk of substantial “waiting time penalties” under Labor Code Section 203. That can be a huge burden and risk for employers, as the Hartstein case demonstrated.
Hartstein arose during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, when many businesses were forced to greatly reduce or cease business operations without knowing when they would be able to reopen. In March 2020 Hyatt, like many employers, furloughed thousands of employees and was unable to provide any specific return-to-work date. Hyatt advised employees that vacation and PTO would not accrue during the temporary layoff, and Hyatt offered to pay any accrued vacation to employees upon request. A month later, in June 2020, Hyatt sent a letter advising employees that the temporary layoff had become permanent and employees would be paid their accrued vacation and PTO as required by Labor Code Section § 201 when a “discharge” occurs.
Hyatt employee Karen Hartstein filed a class-action and Private Attorneys General Act (PAGA) lawsuit, arguing that a “discharge” had occurred with the indefinite temporary layoff in March 2020, and not when employees were permanently laid off in June 2020. The key question was whether a temporary layoff, lacking a specified return date, constituted a “discharge” under Labor Code Section 201, which had no definition of “discharge.” No previous published case had addressed the issue.
The Ninth Circuit turned to the California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE) for guidance in its previously-issued Opinion and its Policies and Interpretations Manual. DLSE had indicated that, when an employee is laid off without a specified return date within the regular pay period, the employer must immediately give the employee a final paycheck that includes vested vacation pay. DLSE reasoned that this interpretation best aligned with the statute’s purpose of protecting workers and ensuring prompt payment of earned wages.
The Ninth Circuit characterized Hyatt’s actions as “understandable given the uncertainty during the early period of the pandemic,” but remanded the case to the trial court to determine whether Hyatt’s failure to issue full final paychecks in March 2020 constituted a “willful” violation, which would expose Hyatt to waiting time penalties. That question remains open and will be watched closely by employment lawyers.
Hartstein v. Hyatt provides new guidance to California employers who may need to implement open-ended furloughs or temporary shutdowns. This decision has made clear that California employers who furlough or temporarily lay off employees without specifying a return-to-work date within the same pay period should immediately issue final paychecks that include each employee’s vested and unused vacation or PTO.
Hartstein v. Hyatt demonstrates again that employment law in California is constantly evolving, and outcomes may not be as predictable as employers would hope. California employers facing such issues are well-advised to consult with qualified employment counsel to stay up-to-date on these and other important employment issues. Conkle, Kremer & Engel’s attorneys can help advise employers in navigating these complex and evolving issues.