United States: No Rest For The Weary: California Law On Rest Breaks

Last Updated: September 27 2016
Article by Colleen M. Regan

Seyfarth Synopsis: California's rules on rest breaks are still developing. Recent cases have addressed the timing of rest breaks, and whether employees (particularly those who remain "on call") must be relieved of all duty during breaks.

Our fair state has long imposed peculiar—and specific—requirements for employee work breaks. Varying interpretations of the rules for meal and rest breaks have spawned prodigious class action litigation, both before and after the California Supreme Court's crucial 2012 decision in Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court. Accordingly, California employers have a keen interest in making their break policies and practices as compliant as possible.

But this can be hard to do while the rules remain in flux. In this post, we discuss two cases—one decided a few months ago and the other now pending before the California Supreme Court—that bring the requirements for rest breaks into finer focus. The cases raise these questions: (1) Exactly when must employers provide rest breaks? (2) Can employers require workers on break to remain "on call"?

So we invite you to "take 10" and read on.

The Basic Rule

Section 226.7 of the Labor Code says that employers can't require employees to work during breaks mandated by an order of the Industrial Welfare Commission. The IWC, in turn, has mandated (in Section 12(A) of the Wage Orders) 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. The authorized rest period time shall be based on the total hours worked daily at the rate of ten (10) minutes net rest time per four (4) hours or major fraction thereof.

More about that pesky phrase "insofar as practicable," below.

Timing of Rest Breaks

The rule on rest breaks is often short-handed as "10 minutes paid rest for every four hours (or major fraction thereof) worked." But must each rest break occur during the middle of each four-hour work period? Or can it be permissible to allow—or require—employees to combine breaks, or to schedule them at some time other than midway through the work period? And what does "insofar as practicable" mean, anyhow?

The 2016 California Court of Appeal decision in Rodriguez v. E.M.E., Inc.  took a stab at answering. E.M.E. gave one 20-minute rest break and one meal break per eight-hour shift, due to the nature of the work and the clean-up time required at each break. Rodriguez brought a class action claiming that this practice violated Section 12(A) of the applicable Wage Order.

The Court of Appeal held that the phrase "insofar as practicable" means that employers must implement the rest schedule specified in the Wage Orders unless there is "an adequate justification why such a schedule is not capable of being put into practice, or is not feasible as a practical schedule." More specifically, employers may depart from the Wage Order schedule (i.e., a rest break in the middle of each four-hour period or major fraction thereof) only when it (1) will "not unduly affect employee welfare" and (2) "is tailored to alleviate a material burden" on the employer that would result from using the Wage Order schedule.

Reversing summary judgment for the employer on the certified rest break claim, the Court of Appeal sent the case back to the trial court to resolve triable issues about these questions. The court highlighted two issues: (1) Was the nature of the work (i.e., sanding, painting and finishing metal parts for the aerospace industry) such that it took 10 minutes to prepare for each break and 10 minutes to ramp up again after the break? (2) Did the employees actually prefer to receive one combined 20-minute break? If E.M.E. could establish these points, then E.M.E. could use a schedule other than the one specified by the Wage Order.

Relief From All Work?

Poised for decision by the California Supreme Court in Augustus v. ABM Security Services, Inc., 233 Cal. App. 4th 1065 (2014) review granted, 186 Cal. Rptr. 3rd 359 (2015), is the question whether an employee on a rest break must be relieved of all duties, even the duty to be on call. The employees at issue in Augustus were security guards who remained "on call" even while taking their rest breaks. The guards claimed that their "on call" status deprived them of legally compliant rest breaks. The trial court agreed and granted them summary judgment.

But then, in a refreshing display of common sense, the Court of Appeal reversed, holding that on-call rest breaks are permissible. The Court of Appeal explained that although on-call hours constitute "hours worked," an employee who is merely available to work is not actually working. Section 226.7 proscribes only work on a rest break; being on call is a compensable activity, but it is not work. This result is consistent with the point that employers may require employees on a rest break to stay on the employer's premises because the breaks are, after all, paid. The issue of whether a rest period is compensable time (it is) is not the same as whether a rest period is a true break from work (on-call duty, when one is not called, is not work).

Yet employer hopes that the Court of Appeal had the final say on this matter were dashed when the California Supreme Court granted review of the decision. Check this space after the oral argument on this case, scheduled for September 29, 2016, to read our take on how the Supreme Court may be leaning when it comes to the issues presented in this case.

Workplace Solution

Even after Brinker, the waters continue to roil around rest break rules. We welcome your inquiries regarding any Cal-peculiar issues of employment law.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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