by Cathleen S. Yonahara, Freeland Cooper & Foreman LLP
Complying with California laws applicable to meal periods is complicated. In a recent case, a trial court found that although the employer’s on-duty meal period agreement was invalid, its drivers weren’t forced to sign the agreement or miss off-duty meal periods against their will. This article addresses an employer’s obligations regarding meal periods.
Cement Company Gives Drivers On-Duty Meal Period Agreements
Granite Rock Company (Graniterock) manufactures, delivers, and pours concrete. The concrete it produces is a perishable product that cannot be stored. When there’s concrete in the drum of a mixer truck, the drum must continually rotate to prevent hardening, and freshly batched concrete must be poured within 60 to 90 minutes to ensure its structural integrity.
Graniterock’s concrete mixer drivers load the concrete into the mixer trucks, monitor the rotation of the truck drums, deliver the concrete to customers, and pour the concrete at construction sites.
On January 17, 2008, several Graniterock employees filed a lawsuit on behalf of a class of approximately 200 current and former concrete mixer drivers. The drivers claimed that Graniterock failed to provide off-duty meal periods or give drivers one additional hour of pay for duty-free meal periods. The trial court granted class certification for approximately 200 concrete drivers employed by Graniterock on or after January 7, 2004.
Graniterock provided its concrete mixer drivers with the option of signing an on-duty meal period agreement pursuant to Industrial Wage Commission (IWC) Wage Order 1, which allows a written on-duty meal period agreement “when the nature of the work prevents an employee from being relieved of all duty.” That Wage Order requires that such an agreement must be revocable by the employee at any time.
The on-duty meal period agreement signed by the Graniterock drivers provides: “I understand that I may revoke this Waiver Agreement at any time by providing at least one (1) working day’s advance notice to my Manager of my decision.”
At trial, Graniterock claimed that one day’s notice was the shortest period of time during which it could process a revocation of the agreement and provide the driver an off-duty meal period. Graniterock informed the drivers that if they didn’t sign an on-duty meal period agreement and were asked to work through a meal, they would receive one hour of special pay equal to one hour of pay (i.e., Code 38 Pay).
Graniterock notified drivers of their right to a 30-minute off-duty meal period through an IWC Wage Order poster and other mandatory state and federal postings. The drivers testified that they understood that they could revoke the on-duty meal period agreement at any time. Only three drivers revoked the agreement, and each received an off-duty meal period and Code 38 pay.
The court found that the on-duty meal period agreement was invalid because it required one day’s advance notice of revocation. That violated the requirement in Wage Order 1 that an on-duty meal period agreement allow employees to revoke the agreement at any time.
However, the court found that “numerous drivers testified that despite signing an [on-duty meal period agreement], they understood that they could get a meal at any time without revoking their [agreement].”
The court further found that the drivers “failed to prove that [they] were forced, expected, or trained to involuntarily sign [the on-duty meal period agreements] or to miss off-duty meal periods against their will.” The trial court therefore entered judgment in favor of Graniterock, finding it did not violate any labor laws in its meal period policies. The drivers appealed.
Failure to Provide Duty-Free Meal Period
The drivers argued that the lower court’s judgment should be reversed because Graniterock didn’t provide mixer drivers a 30-minute off-duty meal period as required by law. Labor Code Section 512(a) states that employers must provide a meal break of not less than 30 minutes if employees work shifts longer than 5 hours per day and a second 30-minute meal break if they work shifts longer than 10 hours per day. An employer that fails to provide meal or rest periods must pay employees an additional hour of pay for each workday the meal period was not provided.
In Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court, the California Supreme Court held that an employer satisfies its obligation to provide a meal period “if it relieves its employees of all duty, relinquishes control over their activities and permits them a reasonable opportunity to take an uninterrupted 30-minute break, and does not impede or discourage them from doing so.”
The high court emphasized that an employer is not obligated to police meal breaks and ensure that no work is performed. Rather, “bona fide relief from duty and the relinquishing of control satisfies the employer’s obligations, and work by a relieved employee during a meal break does not thereby place the employer in violation of its obligations and create liability for premium pay.”
The drivers argued that Graniterock violated its obligation to provide an off-duty meal period because it didn’t relieve mixer drivers from all duty and relinquish any control over them and how they spent their time. They further argued that Graniterock’s policy of making an off-duty meal period available to employees at their election was insufficient. The appellate court wasn’t persuaded.
There was no evidence at trial that any driver was denied an off-duty meal period when he requested it. Any driver who didn’t sign an on-duty meal period agreement or revoked the agreement was provided one hour of pay as required by law.
The court further found that the drivers were advised of their right to meal periods in the employee handbook and the IWC Wage Order poster, and they exercised those rights by requesting and receiving off-duty meals when they wanted them. Accordingly, Graniterock had satisfied its meal period obligations. Driscoll v. Granite Rock (California Court of Appeal, 6th Appellate District, 11/30/16).
Employers need to be mindful of the rules governing meal periods and on-duty meal period agreements. The requirements for on-duty meal period agreements are set forth in the applicable Wage Order. An on-duty meal period agreement is permissible in very limited circumstances when the nature of the work prevents an employee from being relieved of all duty. If an employee declines to sign an on-duty meal period agreement or revokes the agreement, he must receive one hour of pay if an uninterrupted 30-minute meal period is not provided.