In April 2019, a jury in a California federal court awarded plaintiffs over $6 million in damages for missed meal breaks. Hamilton et al. v. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. et al. (Case No. 5:17-cv-01415-AB-KK). The case involved 5,000 employees who worked at Walmart’s fulfillment center in Chino, California. Plaintiffs brought a class action against Walmart alleging violations of the Unfair Competition Law (“UCL”) for failing to (1) pay for all hours worked, (2) pay all overtime wages, (3) provide meal periods, (4) provide rest breaks, (5) pay final wages, and (6) provide accurate itemized wage statements. Plaintiffs also sought penalties under California’s Private Attorney General Act (“PAGA”).
In August 2018, the court certified six subclasses of the class action:
- Alternative Workweek subclass which was comprised of all current and former employees during the class period who were not paid overtime for working over eight hours in a day or over forty hours in a week and were not paid overtime pursuant to the company’s alternative workweek.
- Overtime subclass which was comprised of all current and former employees who worked over eight hours in a day or more than forty hours in a week and were not paid all overtime.
- Meal break subclass
- Waiting time penalty subclass
- Wage statement subclass
1. Employers must relieve the employee of all duty for meal breaks.
In Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court, the California Supreme Court set forth the requirement for employers to provide meal breaks is “to relieve the employee of all duty and relinquish any employer control over the employee and how he or she spends the time.” 53 Cal. 4th 1004, 1038-40 (2012). “The employer satisfies this obligation if it relieves its employees of all duty, relinquishes control over their activities and permits them a reasonable opportunity to take an uninterrupted 30-minute break, and does not impede or discourage them from doing so.”
The Brinker court also established that employers do not need to ensure that employees took their 30-minute meal breaks. The Brinker Court explained:
[Plaintiff] Hohnbaum contends an employer is obligated to “ensure that work stops for the required thirty minutes.” Brinker, in a position adopted by the Court of Appeal, contends an employer is obligated only to “make available” meal periods, with no responsibility for whether they are taken. We conclude that under Wage Order No. 5 and Labor Code section 512, subdivision (a), an employer must relieve the employee of all duty for the designated period, but need not ensure that the employee does no work.
The Court clarified that employers do not have to ensure that employees do not perform any work during their break:
The difficulty with the view that an employer must ensure no work is done—i.e., prohibit work—is that it lacks any textual basis in the wage order or statute. While at one time the IWC’s wage orders contained language clearly imposing on employers a duty to prevent their employees from working during meal periods, we have found no order in the last half-century continuing that obligation. Indeed, the obligation to ensure employees do no work may in some instances be inconsistent with the fundamental employer obligations associated with a meal break: to relieve the employee of all duty and relinquish any employer control over the employee and how he or she spends the time.
The Court provided that employers must meet the following requirements in order to meet their obligations of providing meal breaks: (1) provide the employee with at least 30 minutes uninterrupted, (2) permit the employee to leave the premises, and (3) relieve the employee of all duty for the entire period.
2. Plaintiffs in the Walmart case established that a security check required for employees to take meal breaks “discouraged employees from leaving the premises.”
In this case, Walmart required the employees to complete a security check process when leaving the facility for lunch breaks. Plaintiff’s alleged, and ultimately prevailed on the theory that this security checkpoint impeded or discouraged class members from taking compliant meal breaks as required under California law.
In ruling against Walmart’s motion for summary judgment, the court recognized that “Walmart is correct that an employer ‘is not obligated to police meal breaks and ensure no work thereafter is performed.’ Brinker, 53 Cal. 4th at 1040. ‘Work by a relieved employee during a meal break does not thereby place the employer in violation of its obligations and create liability for premium pay.’ Id.” The court however ruled that “Walmart’s security check arguably ‘impedes or discourages’ associates from taking an ‘uninterrupted 30-minute break’ because employees have only two options: leave the premises and go through the security check even though the security check may eat up some part of their meal break or stay inside the facility.” The court found that there was enough evidence to permit the jury to decide whether the security check point impeded or discouraged employees from taking meal breaks. And during the trial in April 2019, the jury ultimately agreed with the plaintiffs that the security check point implemented by Walmart discouraged employees from taking their meal breaks.
3. Recently, other cases attempted to allege the theory that employees are “discouraged” from taking meal breaks.
Recently there have been other cases filed against California employers alleging that a practice or policy “discourages” employees from taking their meal breaks. One case involved Taco Bell where the plaintiffs’ alleged that Taco Bell’s policy of requiring employees to remain on the company’s premises while eating a discounted meal prevented the employees from being relieved for a meal break. Fortunately, the court in that case held in Taco Bell’s favor as the employees were not compelled to purchase the discounted meals, as it was a voluntary benefit offered to the employees.
4. Employees must be relieved of all duty during a break.
A similar argument was made in Augustus v. ABM Security Services, Inc. where security guards sued their employer arguing that they did not receive duty free 10-minute rest breaks because they were required to monitor their pager at all times. In Augustus, 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 it 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.”
5. Employers must review how all company policies may impact meal and rest breaks.
The Walmart case is a good example of how a security policy had major implications on a wage and hour issue. California employers need to review their policies to minimize the argument that an employee was “discouraged” from taking their meal or rest breaks because of the various policies that pertained to them. The case also illustrates the difficulties arising from allegations that an employee felt discouraged from taking a break because of a company security policy. However, as the $6 million verdict in this case establishes, it is well-worth a company’s effort to review policies and address potential issues prior to litigation.