California Workers Win “Do Not Disturb” Break-time Battle

Much of California’s employer-employee relationship is defined by seventeen separate Wage Orders, each one regulating a different industry or occupation. One of the Wage Order provisions that sparked controversy recently concerns mandatory employee rest breaks. In a decision promising broad application, the California Supreme Court’s straightforward reading of the term “rest break” translates into a win for California workers.

The Controversy

California’s Wage Orders require employers to permit their non-exempt employees to take a 10-minute paid, uninterrupted rest break for each four hour work period. For most employees, the 10-minute rest break is off duty. In some industries, however, employees have been required by their employers to remain on call or subject to interruption of their rest breaks. This is particularly true in the healthcare, security, hospitality and retail sectors where employees on rest breaks are expected to be on call and ready to return to work if necessary.

The Decision

A recent California Supreme Court decision puts an end to the practice of on-duty, on-call rest breaks. In Augustus v. ABM Security Services, Inc., the Court was asked to decide whether an employer could require employees to take their permitted 10-minute rest breaks on an on-duty or on-call basis as needed. After considering the terminology of the Labor Code and the specific Wage Order at issue, the Court relied on the plain meaning of the term “rest” to conclude that an employee must be relieved of all duty and employer control during a rest break. The Court also determined that on-call rest periods are impermissible, reasoning that the practice of compelling employees to remain “at the ready” is inconsistent with the obligation to relieve employees of all work duties and employer control during 10-minute rest periods.

Although the Augustus case involved an industry that is prone to rest break interruptions, the decision reaches all industries. It will require more vigilance from employers to ensure that rest periods are provided in the manner required by law – free of duty and interruption. As the Court succinctly stated, “A rest period, in short, must be a period of rest.”

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