The Road Ahead for California Truckers:  Rest Breaks, Piece-Rate Work, and Federal Preemption

Several cases over the past few years have made it much easier for truck drivers in California to collect unpaid wages for missed meal and rest breaks.  These decisions have also clarified that truck drivers in California who are paid by the mile or by the load must be paid separately for time that they are not actually Gear-and-Gavel_dark-bluedriving.  This means that companies that pay their drivers by the piece must also pay them an hourly rate for time spent doing things like vehicle inspections and stand-by time.

For example, in Bluford v. Safeway Stores, Inc., a group of truck drivers sued Safeway for unpaid rest breaks.  Section 226.7 of the California Labor Code and Industrial Welfare Commission Wage Order 9 require employers to permit employees to take 10 minute rest breaks for every four hours (or major portion thereof) worked.  The first rest break kicks in after three and a half hours of work.  The second kicks in after six hours, and the third after 10 hours.  In other words, an employee who works a shift that is more than 10 hours long is owed three rest breaks.  Although employees are free from job duties during these breaks, the employer is required to pay for them and cannot deduct the rest breaks from employees’ wages.

The Bluford drivers claimed that Safeway had violated these requirements because it paid drivers based upon miles driven and tasks performed, but did not pay them for their rest breaks.  Safeway responded that it did not deduct any pay from the drivers’ paychecks, and thus did not violate the law.

The California Court of Appeal agreed with the drivers.  The court held that the drivers’ claim that they were not paid separately for rest breaks was enough to state a claim under Wage Order 9.   In other words, where drivers are paid by the mile or by the task, the employer must pay them separately for their rest breaks.  (On a separate but related note, if a driver is unable to take a rest break, the employer must compensate him or her with an additional hour of pay.)

The holding in Bluford is consistent with Gonzalez v. Downtown LA Motors.  In Gonzalez, the court addressed automobile service technicians who are paid on a “piece-rate” basis–that is, they are paid by the task performed, and not on an hourly basis.  The court noted that under California law, employees must be paid for all hours worked.  This means that the minimum wage must be paid for each and every hour worked.

However, and critically, under California law an employer is not permitted to average an employee’s total number of hours worked in a pay period to determine whether this requirement has been met.

The California Supreme Court declined to review Gonzalez.  That means that that holding (as with the Bluford holding) is binding on all superior courts in the State of California.

The Gonzalez holding has been followed by federal district court cases involving truck drivers.  For example, in Con-Way Freight v. Quezada, the court held that the employer had to pay drivers for non-driving tasks, such as vehicle inspections and waiting time.  The fact that the employer had included that time in its piece-rates was irrelevant:  Under California law, non-driving time must be paid at a separate hourly rate that meets or exceeds the minimum wage.

In perhaps the biggest win for truck drivers, on February 23, 2015 the United States Supreme Court declined to review People ex rel. Harris v. Pac Anchor Transportation, Inc.  In that case, the California Supreme Court had held that state law is not preempted by a federal law called the Federal Aviation Administration Authorization Act of 1994 (“FAAAA”).  The Court noted that there was nothing in the FAAA that indicated that Congress had intended to preempt state wage and hour standards.

Pac Anchor is consistent with Dilts v. Penske, a decision of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.  In Dilts, the court held that the FAAAA did not preempt California’s meal and rest break laws, as applied to truck drivers.

The upshot of all of this is that companies that employ truck drivers in California must comply with the state’s wage and hour laws.  Such companies must provide meal breaks, and permit rest breaks.  When they do not, they must pay drivers an additional hour of pay for each break that is missed.

Companies that pay drivers on a piece-rate basis must also comply with California law.  They must separately compensate drivers for rest breaks, vehicle inspections, stand-by time, and other time that the drivers are not actually driving.

Hunter Pyle Law has handled numerous cases involving drivers who were not given proper meal and rest breaks.  We have represented drivers throughout the state.  If you have any questions about your situation at work, please do not hesitate to contact us.