California Court Decision Backs “Preferred” Schedule for Meal and Rest Periods

By XobeeAdmin on April 28, 2016 in Legal Update

An April 22, 2016 California Court of Appeal decision clarified when rest periods must be provided during the workday and expressed the limited circumstance when an employer may deviate from the timing requirements. California employers are required to authorize and permit non-exempt employees to take rest periods. Rest period time is based on the total hours worked daily at a rate of ten minutes net rest per four hours worked or major fraction thereof. There is also a timing element to rest periods: “insofar as practicable [rest periods] shall be in the middle of each work period.” (See IWC Wage Orders.)

California law also requires employers to provide non-exempt employees with a meal period after a work period of no more than five hours. A second meal period must be provided after a work period of no more than ten hours. An employer’s failure to provide rest periods or meal periods as required by California law could subject the employer to costly penalties and premium wages, and may result in class action and PAGA litigation.

The term “work period” is used to express employer obligations for both meal periods and rest periods, but it is not defined by California law. Very little authority exists interpreting the term “work period” in the context of providing rest periods, and thus far none was binding on employers. Therefore, the amount of employer flexibility in scheduling employee rest periods was largely uncertain.

The Court of Appeal’s decision in Rodriguez v. E.M.E., Inc. clears up some of the ambiguity. The defendant-employer had a practice of “combining” two ten-minute rest periods during an eight-hour schedule, providing one twenty-minute rest period and one thirty-minute meal period. The employer had two shifts: (first shift) 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., with a twenty-minute rest period at about 9:30 a.m. and a thirty-minute meal period at 12:30 p.m.; and (second shift) 3:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m., with a thirty-minute meal period at 5:30 p.m. and a twenty-minute rest period at about 8:00 p.m.

The Court of Appeal’s decision found that, for purposes of scheduling rest periods, “work periods” are delineated by meal periods:

[T]he term work period cannot reasonably be understood to mean the entire length of an employee’s shift—for example, an 8-hour shift—as that interpretation would oblige employers to schedule “rest periods” in the middle of the shift, that is, at the 4-hour mark. The sentence thus presupposes that the employee’s shift already has been divided into “work periods.” Because the sentence sets forth the preferred timing of rest breaks, the pre-existing “work periods” must be established by meal breaks.

In other words, in a standard eight-hour shift starting at 8:00 a.m., a meal period may typically be provided at 12:00 p.m. For rest period scheduling, this creates two “work periods”: the first preceding the meal period, and the second following it. To comply with California law, the employer must authorize and permit one rest period in approximately the middle of each of these “work periods.” This is the conventional, “preferred” approach of the DLSE and, now, of California courts.

The Court held that combining rest periods – thus providing one twenty-minute rest period rather than two ten minute rest periods – is not necessarily prohibited by California law, but an employer must make a good-faith effort to implement the “preferred” schedule of one rest break per work period, “absent an adequate justification why such a schedule is not capable of being put into practice, or is not feasible as a practical schedule.”

Take-Away for Employers

Employers should make every effort to implement the preferred schedule of one rest period in the middle of each “work period,” defined as any block of work time preceding or following a required meal break. Employers may only deviate from this approach “where practical considerations render it infeasible.”

Employers with questions or concerns regarding their meal or rest period obligations should consult with qualified legal counsel.

The case is Rodriguez v. E.M.E., Inc. To read the Court of Appeal’s opinion, click here.