A Vision Law® attorney attended the live oral argument before the California Supreme Court in San Francisco on November 8, 2011 on a case involving an employer’s obligation under California law on rest periods and meal periods.
It is astonishing that the highest court of the State of California must rule on whether adults in California workplaces must take 10 minute rest periods and/or 30 minute meal periods. That was the order of the day. The Courtroom was fully packed with interested observers.
Believe it or not, at risk is hundreds of millions of dollars in current litigation in California over the issue of whether a California employer must “ensure”(think “force”) its workers to take a 30 minute meal period for each 5 hours worked or whether “making the meal period available” and then leaving it up to the employee to take the meal period is enough.
Since 2000, businesses in the sunny state of California have had to be concerned over their legal obligations in this area, not that there aren’t a multitude of other substantial concerns, such as staying alive in the post-Lehman Brothers economy, not to mention remaining competitive in the global market place.
But back to rest and meal periods. The Justices seemed to be concerned with the following issues:
- Whether the “statutory” provisions of the Labor Code “trump” the California Wage Orders (essentially California “regulations”).
- What exactly is a California employer’s “affirmative obligation” when it comes to meal periods – what are employers obligated to do?
- Whether the law should consider “flexibility” in employer obligations/management of meal periods or whether “forcing” employees to take a 30 meal period for every 5 hours worked would be “coercive” and less protective, rather than more protective, of employees.
As is often times baffling to non-lawyers, lawyers for both employees and employers argued for 75 minutes over what California law requires when it comes to 30 minute meal periods to the seven Justices of the California Supreme Court.
In Vision Law®’s view, respectfully, the high Court should rule that adult employees in California workplaces can choose to take a meal period that is made available to them thereby adopting a “flexible” and common sense rule. So long as employers do not force or require employees to work through the 30 minute meal period under California Labor Code section 512 or the appropriate Wage Order, then that should be enough. The impracticality (inflexibility) of every employer having to “police” each and every one of its employees to “ensure” or “force” each employee to take a 30 minute meal period or risk incurring a penalty otherwise is apparent. Such a rule would also treat adult workers as children incapable of making their own decisions and would coerce them to take a 30 minute meal period (and lengthen their workday) when they might prefer not to take the meal period.
In the meantime, all employers and their employment/labor counsel await the California Supreme Court’s decision on what has been an economically devastating workplace issue.
Stay tuned. The California Supreme Court’s decision is expected in April 2012.
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