Woman resting

In Augustus v. ABM Security Services, Inc., the California Supreme Court issued a ruling on employer’s obligations to permit employees to take “off-duty” rest periods.  The Court’s ruling ends 2016 with a major ruling on issues surrounding rest periods under California law.

The plaintiffs worked as security guards for defendant ABM.  The employer required to the guards to keep their pagers and radio phones on at all times, even during rest periods, and to potentially respond to calls when needed.   The guards’ duties included when a building tenant wished to be escorted to the parking lot, a building manager had to be notified of a mechanical problem, or the occurrence of emergency situations.

The trial court “reasoned that a rest period subject to such control was indistinguishable from the rest of a workday; in other words, an on-duty or on-call break is no break at all,” and granted Plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment.  The trial court awarded approximately $90 million in statutory damages, interest, and penalties.    ABM appealed the trial court’s ruling, and was successful in having the trial court overturned, but the California Supreme Court granted review of the case.

The company argued that it provided the required rest breaks under California law because it only required that the guards keep their radios and pagers on in case they were needed to respond to a call.  For the last Friday’s Five article of 2016, here are five key lessons for California employers from the Supreme Court’s decision:

1. Generally, what are employer’s obligations to provide rest breaks under California law?

Employer’s obligations to provide rest breaks is found in Labor Code section 226.7, enacted in 2000.  As enacted, subdivision (a) provided:  “No employer shall require any employee to work during any meal or rest period mandated by an applicable order of the Industrial Welfare Commission.”  The Wage Orders generally require that employers must provide a 10-minute rest period per every four hours worked and the break should, whenever practicable, fall in the middle of the work period. (See Wage Order 4, subd. 12(A).  The rest period must also be paid, and the law does not require that employers record when the employee takes the rest period (unlike an employer’s obligation to record when 30-minute meal breaks are taken).

2. Does California law require employers to authorize off-duty rest periods? 

Yes.  The Supreme Court held that employers must provide employees with a paid rest break in which the employee is relieved from all work-related duties and free from employer control.  The Court examined the wage order at issue in the case, Wage Order 4, which provides, “Every employer shall authorize and permit all employees to take rest periods…. Authorized rest period time shall be counted, as hours worked for which there shall be no deduction from wages.”

The Court ruled that:

The most reasonable inference we can draw from the wage order and its context is instead that we should give the term its most common understanding – a reading consistent with requiring that employers authorize off-duty rest periods…. So, ordinarily, a reasonable reader would understand ‘rest period’ to mean an interval of time free from labor, work, or any other employment-related duties.

We accordingly conclude that the construction of Wage Order 4, subdivision 12(A) that best effectuates the order’s purpose and remains true to its provisions is one that obligates employers to permit –– and authorizes employees to take –– off-duty rest periods.  That is, during rest periods employers must relieve employees of all duties and relinquish control over how employees spend their time.

3. Can employers satisfy the obligation to relieve employees from duties and control during rest periods if the employer requires the employee to remain on call? 

No.  The Court ruled that “one cannot square the practice of compelling employees to remain at the ready, tethered by time and policy to particular locations or communications devices, with the requirement to relieve employees of all work duties and employer control during 10-minute rest periods.”  The Court made clear that the employee must be “free from labor, work, or any other employment-related duties.  And employees must not only be relieved of work duties, but also freed from employer control over how they spend their time.”

4. If employees are required to carry a pager or phone during a rest break and must monitor the device during the rest break, is the employee provided a compliant rest break? 

No.  If an employee “must fulfill certain duties [such as] carrying a device or otherwise making arrangements so the employer can reach the employee during a break, responding when the employer seeks contact with the employee, and performing other work if the employer so requests,” the employee does not have the freedom to use the rest period for their own purpose.  The court used examples that employees should be permitted to take “a brief walk – five minutes out, five minutes back,” take care of personal matters like “pumping breast milk… or completing a phone call to arrange child care.”

5. Is there some flexibility for employers to reschedule rest breaks when needed?

Yes.  The Court provided, “[n]othing in our holding circumscribes an employer’s ability to reasonably reschedule a rest period when the need arises.”  However, the Court failed to provide any other clarification of what is reasonable in rescheduling a rest period.  The Court did explain, however, that employers have “several options” when employers find it burdensome to relieve their employees of all duties during rest periods.  As examples of these options, the Court stated that employers can provide employees with another rest period to replace the one that was interrupted, or pay the premium pay of one hour at the employee’s regular rate of pay for missing the rest period.

Looking for more information about California employers obligations to provide rest and meal periods?  See my prior post on five reminders about rest breaks here, and the timing of meal and rest breaks under California law here.