By Emily A. Mertes and Katharine Essick
Since the California Supreme Court’s seminal meal and rest break decision Brinker v. Superior Court in 2012, employers have wrestled with whether, in their particular circumstances, it would be impractical to provide their employees with two separate rest breaks before and after a meal period during an 8-hour shift.
Under what circumstances, for example, may an employer combine two rest breaks into one longer break? The California Court of Appeal, 2nd Appellate District, recently established a test for determining whether and to what extent an employer may depart from the standard rest break schedule.
Popular Rest Break Schedule Comes Under Fire
In this wage-and-hour class action, factory workers alleged that their employer, EME Inc., a family-owned aerospace metal finishing company located in Compton, violated California law by providing hourly employees a single 20-minute rest break per shift rather than two 10-minute rest breaks.
EME’s hourly employees worked either a day shift from 7:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. or an evening shift from 3:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. During the day shift, employees received a 20-minute rest break around 9:30 a.m. and a 30-minute meal break at 12:30 p.m.
During the evening shift, employees received a 30-minute meal break at 5:30 p.m. and a 20-minute rest break at 8:00 p.m. Thus, meal and rest breaks were interspersed roughly equally throughout the workers’ shifts. And by most accounts, they preferred this long-standing arrangement.
Despite general acceptance and support of the schedules, former employee Juan Rodriguez filed a class action against EME in which he alleged violations of the California Labor Code, the Unfair Competition Law (UCL), and Wage Order 1-2001. The class claimed that EME’s practice of combining 10-minute rest breaks into one 20-minute period was unlawful.
EME sought to have the case dismissed without a trial, arguing that the combined 20-minute rest break was permissible under Wage Order 1-2001. Section 12(A) of that Wage Order provides that “Every employer shall authorize and permit all employees to take rest periods, which insofar as practicable shall be in the middle of each work period.”
In Brinker, the California Supreme Court observed, “Employers are … subject to a duty to make a good[-]faith effort to authorize and permit rest breaks in the middle of each work period, but may deviate from that preferred course where practical considerations render it infeasible”(italics added).
The Supreme Court did not find it necessary to address whether the preferred schedule was infeasible for the employer because no class had been certified in Brinker yet. By contrast, the class in the Rodriguez case had been certified, so the trial court could properly decide whether, as a matter of law, the preferred rest break schedule under the Wage Order was impracticable for EME.
The employer submitted several declarations from employees explaining why they liked the rest break schedule and arguing that if the preferred schedule was implemented, they would lose an additional 20 minutes of work time in powering down their equipment before a break and powering it back up after a break.
The class representative submitted his contrary declaration that, according to his observations, no more than a few minutes of work time, if that, was lost before and after each break. Citing Brinker, the trial court dismissed the case without a trial and entered judgment in favor of the employer.
The class members appealed, asserting the employer had failed to show the exceptional circumstances, as set forth in the Wage Order, that would justify a departure from the preferred schedule.
Read on here for more details of the case and the bottom line for California employers.