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The California Flats Solar Project is a solar power facility located on privately owned land in Monterey and San Luis Obispo Counties. First Solar Electric, Inc. owns the facility. A subcontractor hired George Huerta and other workers to assist CSI Electrical Contractors, the company providing “procurement, installation, construction, and testing services” at the Site. A designated road provided access between a guard shack located at the Site’s perimeter and the employee parking lots. A security gate was located on that road several miles from the guard shack; from the Security Gate, it would take Huerta approximately 10 to 15 minutes to reach the parking lots. Huerta underwent security checks at the Security Gate and was told by CSI management that this gate was the “first place” he had to be at the beginning of the workday.

In the morning, vehicles formed a long line outside the Security Gate, where guards scanned each worker’s badge and sometimes peered inside vehicles and truck beds. At the end of the day, workers again formed a long line inside the Security Gate, where the exit procedure took place. The exit procedure could take up to a minute or more per vehicle and caused delays of five to over 30 minutes. CSI told Huerta that security guards had the right to search vehicles during the entry and exit processes, and the guards visually inspected the bed of his truck for stolen tools or endangered species. Huerta was not paid for the time he spent waiting to pass through the Security Gate at the beginning or end of the workday.

Because two endangered species were present near the Site, the Department of Fish and Wildlife required First Solar to obtain an Incidental Take Permit (ITP) before work could begin on the project. The ITP imposed a speed limit of 20 miles per hour on the access road between the guard shack and the parking lots, and restricted the roads that could be taken at the Site. It also required a biologist to monitor the Site to minimize disturbances to species’ habitats. As part of this monitoring, the biologist each morning ensured that the road between the guard shack and the parking lots was clear of endangered species before anyone could enter the Site. On some occasions, this clearing process added to the time Huerta spent waiting in line to enter the worksite in the morning.

As First Solar’s subcontractor, CSI was required to abide by the ITP and was required to ensure that its employees did as well. After passing through the Security Gate each morning, Huerta was subject to the rules imposed by the ITP in addition to other rules governing his conduct. CSI required adherence to speed limits between five and 20 miles per hour; restricted travel to driving on the access road to reach the Site, thereby prohibiting employees from driving on other roads near the Site or walking or biking from the Security Gate to the parking lots; and prohibited employees from honking their horns, playing music that could be heard outside of their vehicles, or otherwise disturbing local wildlife. Violation of these rules or other Site rules could result in suspension or termination. Huerta was not paid for the time he spent driving between the Security Gate and the employee parking lots.

Huerta’s employment was governed by two collective bargaining agreements (CBAs), which specified that the standard workday included an unpaid 30-minute meal period. CSI did not allow workers to leave the Site during the workday and instructed workers to spend their meal periods at a designated area near their assigned worksite (Installation Site). In accordance with the CBAs, Huerta was not paid for his meal periods.

Huerta filed a wage and hour class action in the Superior Court of Monterey County on behalf of himself and all others similarly situated against CSI, seeking payment for unpaid hours worked. The suit was removed to the United States District Court for the Northern District of California. The district court granted Huerta’s motion for class certification. CSI then filed a motion for partial summary judgment on the class claims Huerta raised in his first amended complaint; that motion was granted by the district court. CSI filed a second motion for partial summary judgment on the class claim that survived the first motion for partial summary judgment. This second motion was also granted.

Huerta timely appealed the orders granting CSI’s motions for summary judgment to the Ninth Circuit, which certified three questions to the California Supreme Court which answered those questions in the case of Huerta v CSI Electrical Contractors S275431 (March 2024). The request from the Ninth Circuit was to answer three questions about Wage Order No. 16 and the scope of the term “hours worked.”  Industrial Welfare Commission wage order No. 16-2001 (Wage Order No. 16) governs wages, hours, and working conditions in the construction, drilling, logging, and mining industries. (Cal. Code Regs., tit. 8, § 11160.) It entitles certain employees in these industries to at least minimum wage compensation for “hours worked.”

First: “Is time spent on an employer’s premises in a personal vehicle and waiting to scan an identification badge, have security guards peer into the vehicle, and then exit a Security Gate compensable as ‘hours worked’ within the meaning of . . . Wage Order No. 16?” (Huerta v. CSI Electrical Contractors, Inc. (9th Cir. 2022) 39 F.4th 1176, 1177 (Huerta).)

Second: “Is time spent on the employer’s premises in a personal vehicle, driving between the Security Gate and the employee parking lots, while subject to certain rules from the employer, compensable as ‘hours worked’ or as ‘employer-mandated travel’ within the meaning of . . . Wage Order No. 16?” (Ibid.)

And third: “Is time spent on the employer’s premises, when workers are prohibited from leaving but not required to engage in employer-mandated activities, compensable as ‘hours worked’ within the meaning of . . . Wage Order No. 16, or under California Labor Code Section 1194, when that time was designated as an unpaid ‘meal period’ under a qualifying collective bargaining agreement?” (Ibid.)

And the Supreme Court provided the answers to each question. “First, an employee’s time spent on an employer’s premises awaiting and undergoing an employer-mandated exit procedure that includes the employer’s visual inspection of the employee’s personal vehicle is compensable as “hours worked’ within the meaning of Wage Order No. 16, section 2(J).

“Second, the time that an employee spends traveling between the Security Gate and the employee parking lots is compensable as ’employer-mandated travel’ under Wage Order No. 16, section 5(A) if the Security Gate was the first location where the employee’s presence was required for an employment-related reason other than the practical necessity of accessing the worksite. Separately, this travel time is not compensable as ‘hours worked’ because an employer’s imposition of ordinary workplace rules on employees during their drive to the worksite in a personal vehicle does not create the requisite level of employer control.”

“Third, when an employee is covered by a collective bargaining agreement that complies with Labor Code section 512, subdivision (e) and Wage Order No. 16, section 10(E), and provides the employee with an ‘unpaid meal period,’ that time is nonetheless compensable under the wage order as ‘hours worked’ if the employer prohibits the employee from leaving the employer’s premises or a designated area during the meal period and if this prohibition prevents the employee from engaging in otherwise feasible personal activities. An employee may bring an action under Labor Code section 1194 to enforce the wage order and recover unpaid wages for that time.”