In the event of a conflict between a worker’s right to a work-life balance and the right to rest, which right should prevail? According to the Labor Chamber of the Canary Islands High Court, the right to a work-life balance should always “win” in this conflict, provided that it is evidenced that the timetable chosen by the worker is the only way to effectively strike a balance between work and private life.

This is the conclusion reached by judgment no. 1229/2020, of October 30, 2020, in a case in which the company and the workers’ statutory representatives had reached an agreement during a procedure for the collective material modification of working conditions. The aim was to modify the timetables and distribution of working hours of the entire workforce in order to guarantee compliance with the weekly rest period (36 hours) and the daily rest period between each working day (12 hours), and ensure that they did not overlap.

In the case examined, the plaintiff, who had been affected by this collective measure, had been exercising her right to a work-life balance through a reduction in working hours to 30 hours a week and a timetable from 10.00 a.m. to 3.00 p.m. from Monday to Saturday. She was therefore not enjoying an uninterrupted rest period of 48 hours a week, since she only rested for 43 hours from the time she left on Saturday at 3.00 p.m. until she went back to work on Monday at 10.00 a.m.

Given that it was impossible to reach an understanding with the worker to apply the measure, the company informed her that in order to enforce the collective agreement reached, they would be unilaterally modifying her working hours. Following that modification she would have a rest period of two days a week and would start work at 9.00 a.m. instead of at 10.00 a.m., which was necessary in order to meet the working hours of 30 hours a week.

The worker filed a claim contesting the modification of her employment conditions, arguing that it breached her right to a work-life balance, requesting that the measure be rendered null and void and that she receive compensation for the moral damages caused.

The Labor Chamber of the Canary Islands High Court entered into hearing the case, following a judgment upholding the claim, which basically focused on determining whether the employer’s modification of the worker’s timetable to ensure that the right to rest was enjoyed correctly was lawful, even though that measure adversely affected her work-life balance.

To settle the dispute, the High Court started out with the analysis of the circumstances surrounding the case and used the balancing of rights technique, to assess whether the measure applied by the company was

  • suitable, that is, whether it allowed a legitimate purpose to be reached;
  • necessary, that is, whether it was essential to achieve that legitimate purpose; and
  • proportional, which is equivalent to analyzing whether the measure was weighted and balanced because it gave rise to more advantages than disadvantages.

After carrying out this analysis, the court took into account as relevant circumstances, that all the proposals to modify the timetable that had been made by the company had been categorically rejected by the worker, because they prevented her striking a work-life balance (bringing forward the time she started work prevented her taking her children to school in the morning). Moreover, although the worker’s weekly and daily breaks overlapped, it was also true that the worker had been enjoying daily breaks of more than 12 hours.

In view of these circumstances, the court concluded that the modification of the timetable imposed by the company was not lawful because “it has a considerable impact on the worker’s rights to a work-life balance, totally preventing her from exercising those rights”. The measure was therefore classified as null and void.

Although the court found in the judgment, that the modification of the timetable was not intended to adversely affect the employee given that it was lawful (it allowed the right to rest to be exercised correctly), it ruled in favor of the employee arguing that, even though there had been no intention to adversely affect the employee, the modification in working hours made the exercise of her right to a work-life balance impracticable, more difficult than was reasonable and therefore devoid of content.

In short, when the right to rest comes into conflict with the effective exercise of the right to a work-life balance, it loses its absolute and compulsory nature.

Tatiana Alejandra Moreno

Garrigues Employment & Labor Law Department