"Is a Meal Break This Big a Deal?" by Alpha Unit

The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 was a landmark piece of legislation that changed life as working Americans knew it. Among the things it brought about are the 40-hour work week, the national minimum wage, guaranteed “time and a half” for overtime, and the end of what it called “oppressive child labor.”
But progressives in California were ahead of the federal government on worker protections. Twenty-five years before Congress passed the FLSA, California created the Industrial Welfare Commission to establish regular wages, hours, and working conditions in California. The state continues to enforce Wage Orders mandated by the IWC.
What most people would consider obvious requirements for workers has been the subject of intense litigation in California for years: providing meal periods and rest breaks. It’s common sense that people working all day need breaks. But workers and employers have been fighting it out in court over this issue regularly in California. Employers say that providing a meal break isn’t as straightforward as it sounds.
Under California law, workers are allowed:

  • a 30-minute meal period for every work period of more than 5 hours
  • two 30-minute meal periods for every work period of more than 10 hours
  • rest periods at the rate of 10 minutes per 4 hours worked, in the middle of the work period if possible
  • an additional hour of pay for each day that the employer fails to permit the meal period or rest break

Employers, however, find these rules cumbersome and vague, says Allen Matkins. The issues confronted by employers are:

  • What does it mean to “provide” a meal period?
  • Do meal periods have to be provided in rolling 5-hour increments?
  • Are early (or late) lunches allowed?
  • Must employers ensure that their employees actually take these mandated breaks?
  • Are meal and rest period claims suitable for class action adjudication?

According to the California Restaurant Association, these regulations can be a headache for supervisors, who feel they have to play lunchroom cop. Clocking in after a break even one minute early subjects restaurant operators to class action lawsuits. It also says these laws are inconvenient for employees.

  • Many table servers are forced onto mandatory breaks in the midst of the busiest times of day when many would prefer to delay or forego a break to collect more tips.
  • Others would prefer to work through their break to be able to leave 30 minutes early to go to school, pick up kids, and so forth.

But employees aren’t of one mind on how inconvenient these regulations are.
In 2004 five employees of Chili’s restaurant filed a case, Hohnbaum v. Brinker Restaurant Corporation, in which they claimed the restaurant illegally denied them meal and rest breaks. They said that the restaurant would have them take “early lunches” shortly after starting work and then work them another 5 to 10 hours without receiving another meal break.
They also said that they should have received a rest break before the first meal period and that they worked “off the clock” during meal periods.
Brinker argued that meal periods need only be “provided” as set forth in the Labor Code. Whether or not any particular manager discouraged or prohibited breaks should be decided on an individual basis and not as a class action.
The case was indeed certified as a class action involving more than 60,000 current and former employees. Brinker appealed this order and prevailed, with the Court of Appeal vacating each subclass. The California Supreme Court accepted review and agreed to settle the uncertainty over meal and rest breaks and the suitability of these claims for class action.
The California Supreme Court finally ruled in 2012, siding with Brinker. It stated:

  1. An employer’s obligation to “provide” a meal period is satisfied if the employee is relieved of all duty for an uninterrupted 30-minute period and is free to leave the work premises. The employee can use the meal period for whatever purpose he or she desires.
  2. An employer does not have to ensure that no work is done during a meal period. Nor is the employer liable for a meal period premium if the employee chooses to work (unless he or she is pressured to work).
  3. The first meal period must be provided after no more than 5 hours of work. The second meal period must be provided after no more than 10 hours of work.
  4. Rest breaks and meal periods do not need to be taken in a certain order.
  5. A 10-minute rest period is owed for every major portion of 4 hours after an employee works 3 and a half hours. Thus, an employee is entitled to 10 minutes rest for shifts from 3 and a half to 6 hours, 20 minutes for shifts of more than 6 hours up to 10 hours, and so on.
  6. Meal and rest period claims can be suitable for class action litigation if the employer has a uniform policy that conflicts with break requirements.

So you would think that the issue of meal and rest breaks in California was made simple by the Brinker case. But it wasn’t. Companies can claim that they are exempt altogether from complying with meal and break regulations. This was the issue in Dilts v. Penske Logistics.
Mickey Lee Dilts, Ray Rios, and Donny Dushaj worked for Penske Logistics and Penske Truck Leasing. At the time in question, Penske provided transportation and warehouse management services to Whirlpool Corporation in California. Employees inventoried appliances and loaded them onto trucks for delivery and installation.
Dilts was a “driver/installer.” Rios and Dushaj were “installers” whose job was to unload and install appliances at their destinations.
Penske had a systematic policy of automatically deducting 30 minutes of work time to account for daily meal periods. It didn’t ask whether workers actually had a 30-minute meal period. Furthermore, company policy didn’t permit the driver/installer to leave the truck unattended. Workers had cellphones for communicating with dispatchers, supervisors, and customers during the day but Penske didn’t allow workers to turn off the cellphones during breaks.
In spite of all this, the issue wasn’t simply whether Penske violated California law but whether those laws were preempted by the Federal Aviation Administration Authorization Act of 1994.
The FAAA Act declares that a state cannot enact or enforce any law involving prices, routes, or services of any motor carrier that transports property. Penske argued:

  • California’s law would force drivers to alter their routes. They would have to look for a place to exit the highway and locate stopping places that safely and lawfully accommodated their vehicles.
  • The law would require 1 or 2 fewer deliveries per day to schedule off-duty meal periods.
  • Off-duty meal periods and rest breaks would reduce driver flexibility and interfere with customer service.
  • The law would significantly impact prices. The company would incur the cost of additional drivers, helpers, trackers, and trailers to ensure off-duty breaks and maintain the same level of service.

The US District Court ruled for Penske in October 2011. But the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the ruling, saying that meal and rest break laws are not preempted because they are not the sorts of laws related to price, routes, or service that Congress intended to preempt. Instead they are normal background rules for all employers doing business in California.
The Obama administration had filed a brief supporting the workers in this case, saying that the FAAA Act did not preempt state break requirements because it is squarely within the states’ traditional power to regulate the employment relationship and to protect worker health and safety.
Penske appealed to the United States Supreme Court. Among those who filed in support of Penske were the American Trucking Associations and the United States Chamber of Commerce. But the Supreme Court denied the petition. Dilts, Rios, and Dushaj prevailed after 6 years.
Does this mean there won’t be any more litigation in California over meal and rest breaks for workers? If only it were that simple. Employers and workers have a hard time seeing eye-to-eye on when and how a worker should take a break.