One common source of PAGA penalties occurs when employers fail to authorize and permit the rest breaks that are required under California law. When this happens, workers can recover one hour of pay at their regular hourly rate for each day they are deprived of one or more rest breaks. They can also seek penalties under PAGA, as well as their attorney’s fees.
A recent decision by the Second District of the California Court of Appeal clarifies the timing of rest breaks, and whether rest breaks can be combined into a single break. Rodriguez v. E.M.E., Inc. (2016) 246 Cal.App.4th 1027 involved a class action brought by workers who paint metal parts manufactured in machine shops. The workers worked eight hour shifts, so they were entitled to two ten minute rest breaks. EME, the employer, required the workers to take their two rest breaks in one combined break that lasted 20 minutes.
The court looked closely at the language of Wage Order No. 1-2001, which provides as follows:
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 court also considered the holding in the seminal case of Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court (2012) 53 Cal.4th 1004. There, the California Supreme Court held that employers could deviate from the preferred course of providing rest breaks in the middle of each work period “where practical considerations render in infeasible.” The Rodriguez court also noted this critical language from Brinker:
As a general matter, one rest break should fall on either side of the meal break. Shorter or longer shifts and other factors may alter this general rule.
Id. at 1032.
One of the critical questions resolved by Rodriguez is what the phrase “insofar as practicable” means. The court interpreted that phrase narrowly, holding that an employer could depart from the preferred schedule only where it could meet two requirements:
- Departing from the preferred schedule of two rest breaks, with one on either side of the meal break, would not unduly affect employee welfare; and
- The departure is tailored to alleviate a material burden that would otherwise be imposed on the employer.
The court then turned to the evidence submitted by the parties. If found that a single declaration submitted by the plaintiff was sufficient to defeat the employer’s motion for summary judgment. This was somewhat surprising, given that the employer had submitted a large amount of evidence in support of its motion.
The court then turned to the question of whether the term “work period” meant the two work periods that fall on either side of the meal break under the preferred schedule, or something else. The defendant, along with various employer-side legal organizations, argued that the term “work period” means the entire shift, and that an employer’s only obligation was to ensure that during the entire shift, the meal and rest breaks divide the shift into approximately equal work periods.
The court rejected the defendant’s argument. Instead, it held that in an eight hour shift with a single meal break, the preferred schedule requires the provision of two rest breaks, with one in the middle of each of the work periods that fall either side of the meal break.
Last, the court considered the issue of under what circumstances an employer can combine two or more rest breaks into one longer rest break. The court noted only one situation where that type of combination was permissible: when an employer’s business requires shifts in which the meal break must be taken soon after the workers start their shifts. (One example of this type of situation might be in a restaurant where the waitstaff eat their meals before the rush of customers makes it impossible to take breaks.)
Rodriguez thus establishes that employers that choose to depart from the standard meal and rest break schedule must be two relative stringent requirements. Otherwise they will face significant liability under California’s wage and hour laws.
If you have questions about the meal or rest breaks at work, please feel free to contact Hunter Pyle Law for a free consultation. We can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 510.444.4400.