California, where a “rest break” means exactly that

Employer policies that require rest periods to be taken while “on call” are illegal in California.  Plaintiffs in the case Augustus v. ABM worked as security guards for ABM Security Services, Inc. (ABM).  ABM required these workers to keep their pagers and radio phones on––even during rest periods––and to remain vigilant and responsive to calls when the need arose.  ABM’s expectation of “when the need arose” encompassed a wide variety of circumstances, including when a building tenant wished to be escorted to the parking lot, a building manager had to be notified of a mechanical problem, or some kind of “emergency situation” occurred. 

Plaintiffs sued, alleging the company failed to provide the rest periods state law entitles employees to receive.  At first, the trial court granted summary judgment for the workers, finding ABM liable and awarding approximately $90 million.  However, the Court of Appeal put this all on hold when it reversed the trial court’s decision on the basis that only meal periods must be “off-duty,” but not rest periods. 

In December 2016, the California Supreme Court settled the issue by ruling that workers in California are entitled to “off-duty” rest breaks free of work duties and employer control. 

The Labor Code and Industrial Welfare Commission Wage Orders govern meal and rest period law in California.  The wage order applicable in this case states that employers must authorize 10 minutes net rest time per four hours worked and that a rest period should fall in the middle of each work period if practicable. (Wage Order 4, section 12(A).) 

In Augustus, the California Supreme Court explained that the term “rest” should be given its most common understanding––meaning just that––employers must authorize “off-duty” rest periods. 

Specifically, the California Supreme Court made it clear that employees should be able to use their 10 minute rest breaks to take a brief walk, or to take care of other personal matters that require truly uninterrupted time—like pumping breast milk (see Labor Code § 1030 [regarding use of break time for expressing milk for an infant]) or completing a phone call to arrange child care. 

Although only 10 minutes, a rest break under California law equals a break free from work duties and employer control.  Requiring workers to “remain vigilant” to work matters and “responsive when the need arises” does not qualify as a “rest break.” 

For questions regarding rest breaks or wage and hour law, please contact your labor law counsel.  Note that if your workplace is governed by a Union collective bargaining agreement, you should also consult your Union representative regarding any meal period or rest break provisions of the contract that may apply.    

By Lisl Soto | January 19, 2017

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