Which State’s Labor Laws Apply?
Am I protected by my State’s Labor Laws?
One reason that it is important to seek legal counsel from attorneys that are dedicated to employees’ rights, like those at Herrmann Law, is that it is not always clear which state labor laws apply. In this increasingly interconnected world, and now that many more employees are working remotely, the question of which set of laws should apply is one that takes on added importance. As in the case example discussed below, there are often significant advantages to having one state’s labor laws apply versus another state’s laws. Some state labor laws are much more protective of workers than others. This is similarly true for cities, counties, and other localities. Illinois and New York State laws are very protective of workers, but Chicago and New York City ordinances are even more so.
So, which state’s labor laws apply? In general, legally, when there is a conflict between which states laws are to be applied to a given employment circumstance, courts engage is what is called a “conflict of laws” analysis. The courts examine and weigh the public policies of the competing states and then decide, based on the balance, which state has the most compelling interest in the parties or transaction. The state with the more compelling interest is typically the state that is deemed most entitled to have its laws applied.
An interesting recent example comes from a case addressing a conflict between Louisiana and California labor laws involving workers on an oil rig maintenance vessel. In that case, former crew members of an ocean-going vessel filed a lawsuit alleging violations of California state wage and hour laws against their employers who were the owners of the vessel. During the relevant time period, the vessel was docked at a California port and provided maintenance services to oil platforms located in the Pacific Ocean off the California coast. However, the crew members did not live in California and when their six-week employment stents were finished, they went home to other states like Texas and Ohio. Every other aspect of the employment relationship was connected to Louisiana. For example, the vessel was registered in Louisiana, the employer was formed and headquartered in Louisiana, the crew members were interviewed and trained in Louisiana and more.
The case is a good illustration of how complicated conflict of laws evaluations can be. The case resulted in two opinions from the California Court of Appeals. The first opinion, from early 2020, held that Louisiana labor laws applied. See Gulf Offshore, LLC v. Superior Court, 45 Cal. App. 5th 285 (Cal. App. 2nd Cir., February 18, 2020). The difference between the two sets of labor laws is significant. For example, Louisiana has no specific laws requiring worker compensation for overtime. Instead, Louisiana relies on the federal Fair Labor Standards Act and maritime law. Under federal law, seamen are exempt from any obligation to pay overtime compensation. The opposite is true in California. In the February 2020 opinion, based on the number and significance of the connections to the state of Louisiana, the court held that Louisiana law should apply.
However, the case was appealed by the crew members. And, on appeal, the California Supreme Court disagreed with the Court of Appeal, a lower court, and sent the case back for a re-evaluation based on new caselaw. The second time around, the Court of Appeals decided that California labor laws should apply. See Gulf Offshore Logistics, LLC v. Superior Court of Ventura County, Case No. 2d Civil No. B298318 (Cal. Court of Appeals, 2nd Dist. December 7, 2020). Essentially, the court held that there was no need to evaluate Louisiana’s interest in the employment relationship because the work was done in California and the crew members were based in California.
Like nearly every state, California has a law providing that California labor laws will apply to workers if most of the work is performed in California. California also has a law that says that, where employees perform work in multiple states, then California labor laws will apply if the employees are based in California. Cal. Labor Code section 226(a). Being based in California means that California serves as the physical location where a worker “presents” himself or herself for work duties. In Gulf Offshore, the facts showed that, for the relevant time period, most of the work done was done within the territorial waters of the state of California. Moreover, since the vessel was docked in California, the employees were based in California. Thus, under both statutory criteria, the court held California laws were applicable.
This was a good decision for the vessel crew members since, as noted, California has many more statutory protections for employees than Louisiana does. As the case demonstrates, choice of law issues are complex and can require a close examination of the facts related to the employment circumstances.
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