WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Tuesday seemed inclined to rule against workers on oil drilling platforms off California who want to be paid for the off-work time they spend on the platform, including sleeping.
The question has to do with what law should apply: federal law, which wouldn’t require drilling platform workers to be paid for non-working time at their work location, or the more generous California law, which would.
But both conservative and liberal justices seemed doubtful California
law applies. Justice Samuel Alito said that the workers’ position “means that California then extends 200 miles out to sea.” And Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted at one point that “a state is not sovereign” over the area where the oil platforms at issue are.
The case involves Brian Newton, who worked on drilling platforms off California’s coast near Santa Barbara from 2013 to 2015. He worked 14-day shifts, spending 12 hours on duty and 12 hours off duty but on call . Other workers had the opposite schedule, allowing the platforms to operate 24 hours a day.
In 2015, Newton filed a class action lawsuit arguing that his former employer, Parker Drilling, was violating California law by, among other things, failing to pay workers for the time they spent on controlled standby, including the time they spent sleeping.
To figure out if that’s right, the justices have to deal with a 1953 law called the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act. It says federal law applies in the waters where the oil drilling platform in the case stands. But the law also says that the laws of the adjacent state, California, apply as long as they are “applicable and not inconsistent” with the act.
Parker Drilling says California law only applies if there’s a “gap” in federal law, and that there’s no gap in this case because federal minimum wage and overtime law applies. The government agrees. But Newton argues California law is “applicable,” and not incompatible with federal labor law. He notes that federal law anticipates that some states will have more generous labor laws.