California Employees Can Be Required to Remain On Call Duty During Rest Breaks

Two recent California court decisions have interpreted features of California law that affect how employees spend their break time and what their employers can expect. Specifically, the decisions concern employee reprieve from work and availability during meal and rest periods.

Applicable Law

In California, employee meal and rest periods are prescribed by statute and Industrial Wage Commission Orders (IWCs). Under the law, employers must permit nonexempt employees to take a 10-minute rest break for every four hours worked and provide a 30-minute meal period for every 5 hours worked. Rest periods count as compensated hours worked. Meal periods, in general, are unpaid and do not count as hours worked. In either case, the law provides that an employer may not require an employee to work during a meal or rest period.

Meal Periods

During a meal period, an employee cannot be required to perform any work. The employee must also be “relieved of all duties” during the entire 30-minute period and free to leave the employer’s premises. In the landmark Brinker v. Superior Court case, the California Supreme Court held that this standard does not mean an employer is obligated to monitor employees to make sure that no work is performed during a meal period. Employers are only required to make work- and duty-free meal periods available to employees, not to “ensure” they are taken.

Rest Periods

This month, another critical decision was made regarding workers’ down time. The Court in Augustus v. ABM Security Services held that an employer may require an employee remain on call and on premises during a 10-minute rest break. The Court reasoned that the law expressly prohibits an employer from requiring an employee to work during a rest period, but neither the Labor Code nor the IWCs contain a requirement that an employee be “relieved of all duty” during a rest period.  With regard to the employees’ rest-period on-call duty, the Court determined that “remaining available to work is not the same as performing work.”

It remains to be seen whether the Augustus decision will be appealed. Meanwhile, California courts in other jurisdictions are likely to look to that case for guidance in reaching their decisions.

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