The Wall Street Journal is reporting about the plans of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who would like to anchor a ship 12 miles off the San Francisco coast in order to skirt U.S. Immigration laws. They project that the ships could hold 1,000 people at a cost for a room roughly equivalent (if not cheaper) to an apartment in San Francisco. The entrepreneurs view this as a viable option for tech start-ups to have access to skilled workers, who are having a difficult time obtaining H1-B visas to live and work in the U.S. Since it is simpler to obtain a B-1 visa that permits the worker to travel to the U.S. for meetings, seminars, and training, the ship would act as a staging area for the workers outside of the U.S., but still allow them to work in close proximity to the start-up company. The article mentions that the legal ramifications of immigration law may not permit this, but it made me wonder if the employer would effectively not have to comply with the California Labor Code as well. 

I believe it would be hard for the California Courts to establish that the Labor Code would apply to the workers stationed in a ship outside of the U.S. boarders for work completed outside of the state. Recently, the California Supreme Court held in Sullivan v. Oracle Corporation that California Corporations that employ non-resident workers in the state of California are subject to California’s Labor Code provisions, such as requirements for overtime pay which are vastly different than other states’ law and federal law (click here for a more detailed analysis of the Oracle decision). The Court in Oracle explained that states have broad authority under their police powers to regulate employment matters within their boundaries (such as child labor laws, minimum and other wage laws, and workers compensation laws). The Court stated, “To exclude nonresidents from the overtime laws’ protection would tend to defeat their purpose by encouraging employers to import unprotected workers from other states.”

However, that case was limited to work performed in California. The scenario proposed by the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs is vastly different, where non-citizens perform work outside of the U.S. and California boarders, and only travel into the State for meetings. It is analogous to the situation where employees living in China, but working for a California corporation, routinely travel to California for work.  Under Oracle, the argument could be made that the employees may have to be paid according to California law for the work done while in California, but it is unlikely this requirement would extend to the work done outside the state while on the ship.  These types of issues will be more and more common given how technology is changing the traditional concepts that workers have to be in a certain building, or even country, while performing work.