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Helping You Navigate Workplace Issues in California

Supreme Court Holds California Labor Law Does Not Protect Workers on Outer Continental Shelf


California has its own state minimum wage and overtime laws that afford many employees greater protections than those provided by federal law. But what about employees who work in areas that are not on California soil, or maybe off the California coast, such as drilling platforms? Are such areas also covered by state law? We explore those questions in this article.

Drilling Workers Not Entitled to Pay for “Standby” Hours

The United States Supreme Court recently addressed this very question. The case, Parker Drilling Management Services, Ltd. v. Newton, involved a plaintiff who worked on a drilling platform operated by the defendant off the California coast. According to his lawsuit, which he filed as a class action, the plaintiff said his job required him to work 14-day shifts of 12 hours per day and 12 hours on “standby.”

There was no question the plaintiff was properly paid under California law during the 12 hours he actually worked. The dispute was over whether he was entitled to compensation for the “standby” hours. During these hours, the plaintiff (and similarly situated workers) could not leave the platform. But the plaintiff was not paid for any of this time, which he alleged violated California law. In response, the defendant (the drilling company) argued state law did not apply to this situation.

Both sides agreed the drilling platforms were covered by a specific federal statute, the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA). To give a bit of background, prior to the 1950s the federal and state governments could not agree on who had jurisdiction over the “submerged lands”–the seabed and subsoil–of the continental shelf, which extends 200 nautical miles from the U.S. coastline according to international law. After the Supreme Court declared the federal government had “exclusive jurisdiction” over the shelf, Congress adopted the OCSLA in 1953. This Act basically gave individual states jurisdiction over their portion of the “inner” continental shelf, while affirming the federal government’s exclusive control over the outer shelf.

Of critical importance to this case, the OCSLA also said that the laws of individual states still applied to their adjacent portions of the outer shelf, provided they were “applicable and not inconsistent” with federal law. So the issue before the Supreme Court here was whether California’s minimum wage laws were inconsistent with the OCSLA. The plaintiff argued there was no inconsistency, as federal law does not expressly preempt state minimum wage laws on this subject. The defendant replied state labor laws were not “applicable” to the outer shelf at all.

The Supreme Court unanimously sided with the defendant’s reading of the law. In its opinion, the Court declared “[a]ll law on the [outer continental shelf] is federal, and state law serves a supporting role, to be adopted only where there is a gap in federal law’s coverage.” And in this case there was no such “gap.” In fact, federal regulations state an employee “who resides on his employer’s premises on a permanent basis or for extended periods of time,” such as the plaintiff in this case, is “not considered as working all the time he is on the premises.” In other words, the defendant was not required to pay the plaintiff for standby time under federal law, and state law to the contrary does not apply.

How Will the Supreme Court’s Decision Affect You?

Although fairly narrow in scope, the Supreme Court’s ruling does clarify the legal rights–or lack thereof–of California workers who make their living beyond the coastline. If you have additional questions or concerns about how this decision may affect your workplace rights, please consult with a qualified California employment wage and hour law attorney.





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* Cathleen Scott is licensed to practice in Florida only.

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