The week I turned sixteen, I got my first on-the-books job, as a hostess at a restaurant. The position had its challenges — don’t seat too many people in one section or that server will be slammed, but don’t underseat in another or that server will hate me — but the worst part was that, through lulls and through rushes, I had to stand up.
I’d clock in and take my position at the podium near the door. For the remainder of my shift, there I was: standing, sometimes for seven or eight hours. As I moved through food service jobs in the following years, I began to think of work as consisting of two categories: sitting down, and standing up.
In a country that hasn’t raised its federal minimum wage since 2009, the right to sit down may not be at the top of the list of workers’ demands, but for many who are subjected to arbitrary standing for hours on end, it is certainly on the list. While there are downsides to sitting-down jobs (as any office worker will tell you, it’s not great on the body or the mind to spend day after day hunched over a computer screen), the pointless discomfort of having to stand while performing work that could easily be done from atop a stool or a chair is particularly grating.
Cashier is one of the more obvious such positions. In the United States, most grocery stores require cashiers to stand at their checkout station. Merely leaning against a surface can bring repercussions — as many a manager has irritatingly put it, “If you have time to lean, you have time to clean.” The subject comes up every once in a while, when a social media post about the issue goes viral. One such tweet, for example, reads, “Honestly the fact that American supermarket cashiers don’t get to sit down (?????) is sufficient grounds for revolution by itself.”
A notable exception is ALDI, which allows cashiers to sit down. The chain is German-owned — in Europe, it is common practice for cashiers to be seated. Yet ALDI, which has around two thousand stores in the United States, is ruthless in its pursuit of high productivity and low labor costs; it allows cashiers to sit because its data suggests this arrangement boosts speed. The chain monitors cashiers’ rate on the register, pushing them to scan more than one thousand items an hour and leaving customers to bag their own groceries. It staffs at low levels, with workers responsible for a range of tasks during the shift, and the chain’s practice of slapping many barcodes on every item is a means of speeding up the checkout process, too. ALDI requires customers to cough up twenty-five cents to get a shopping cart (they do get their quarter back when they return the cart), saving the chain the labor cost of having workers round up scattered carts in the parking lot.
Rather than expecting an employer to adopt the right to sit out of its own goodwill, standards are emerging through class action lawsuits. California’s Supreme Court broadened a right to sit down in 2016 after CVS Pharmacy cashiers and JPMorgan Chase bank tellers sued their employers for violating the state’s wage orders, which provide that “all working employees shall be provided with suitable seats when the nature of the work reasonably permits the use of seats,” a regulation originally adopted in 1911 to apply to women working in retail. The cases were brought through the Private Attorneys General Act, which provides workers with a private right of action against employers for labor code violations.
In Kilby v. CVS Pharmacy, Inc., workers argued that the phrase “the nature of the work” refers to discrete tasks, such as ringing up items, and that seating should be provided as an option when those tasks are being performed. This was in contrast to employers’ desire for a more wide-ranging determination of the phrase, one that takes into account all the activities a worker performs during her shift, as well as the boss’s judgment and the layout of the workplace.
While the court did not entirely agree with the workers, it ultimately came down closer to their side, ruling that employees cannot be denied a place to sit solely because an employer prefers that they stand. “There is no principled reason for denying an employee a seat when he spends a substantial part of his workday at a single location performing tasks that could reasonably be done while seated, merely because his job duties include other tasks that must be done standing,” wrote Justice Carol A. Corrigan.
California workers have brought class action lawsuits against several employers since the ruling. In 2018, Walmart agreed to pay $65 million to 100,000 cashiers in California for violating the standard. Despite agreeing to provide suitable seating going forward, the megacorporation has since been sued once again by workers who say it has not done so. Bank of America, too, settled a lawsuit by its California tellers for $15 million, while Safeway settled a case for $12 million.
So long as workers are told to stand when they could sit, the issue will continue to be one of the many frustrations of working in the United States. It needn’t be. If California can back workers’ right to sit down, there’s no reason the rest of the country can’t do so. Grocery workers have risked their health and safety during the pandemic, performing work that was celebrated as “essential.” If there was ever a time to let them take a load off, it’s now.