Why it matters

Can an employer combine two 10-minute rest breaks for a single, 20-minute rest period? Maybe, a California appellate panel has ruled. The management at a metal finishing shop combined the two required breaks for a single, longer rest period. A former employee filed suit, alleging that the practice violated Wage Order No. 1-2001, which states that employee rest periods should occur in the middle of each work period "insofar as practicable."

A trial court granted the employer's motion for summary judgment but the appellate court reversed. Employers should implement the specified rest break schedule absent an adequate justification of why such a schedule is not capable of being put into practice, or is not feasible as a practical schedule, the court said, and a departure is permissible only when the departure "will not unduly affect employee welfare" and "is tailored to alleviate a material burden that would be imposed on the employer by implementing the preferred schedule." Because the evidence supporting the reasons for the combined break was in dispute, the court said the case should move forward.

Detailed discussion

A family-owned metal finishing company in business since 1962, E.M.E. Inc. has a single facility located in Compton with 125 employees. The employer operated on two shifts: from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. and from 3:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. During the first shift, employees received a 20-minute rest break at 9:30 or 9:40 a.m. and a 30-minute meal break at 12:30 p.m. During the second shift, workers received a 30-minute meal break at 5:30 p.m. and a 20-minute rest break at 8 p.m.

Juan Rodriguez worked for the company between 1995 and 2013, when he filed suit. He alleged E.M.E. violated the state Labor Code, unfair competition law, and Wage Order No. 1-2001 by failing to provide meal and rest breaks when it compelled employees to take a single, combined rest period.

A trial court judge granted summary judgment in favor of the employer and Rodriguez appealed. Considering whether Wage Order 1-2001 permits an employer to combine the rest periods required during an 8-hour work shift and provide them before or after the meal break, the appellate panel said such a practice was not prohibited. However, because of disputed facts in the case against E.M.E., the court remanded the suit.

Wage Order 1-2001, applicable to the manufacturing industry, states in section 11(A) that employees working for a period of more than five hours must be provided with a meal period of "not less than 30 minutes." In addition, section 12(A) provides that "Every employer shall authorize and permit all employees to take rest periods, which insofar as practicable shall be in the middle of each work period. The authorized rest period time shall be based on the total hours worked daily at the rate of ten (10) minutes net rest time per four (4) hours or major fraction thereof."

The appellate panel relied heavily upon the California Supreme Court's 2012 decision in Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court, which examined the timing of meal and rest breaks under a Wage Order with identical provisions. TheBrinker court noted "that the only constraint in section 12(A) … was that 'rest breaks must fall in the middle of work periods 'insofar as practicable,'" the panel wrote. "The court stated: 'Employers are … subject to a duty to make a good faith effort to authorize and permit rest breaks in the middle of each work period, but may deviate from that preferred course where practical considerations render it infeasible. At the certification stage, we have no occasion to decide, and express no opinion on, what considerations might be legally sufficient to justify such a departure.'"

Taking up the task itself, the appellate panel said the phrase "insofar as practicable" "directs employers to implement the specified rest break schedule absent an adequate justification why such a schedule is not capable of being put into practice, or is not feasible as a practical schedule."

"[W]e conclude that a departure from the preferred schedule is permissible only when the departure (1) will not unduly affect employee welfare and (2) is tailored to alleviate a material burden that would be imposed on the employer by implementing the preferred schedule," the court wrote, adding that the Wage Order must be construed in a manner that promotes its "protective intent" to safeguard employee health and welfare. "Furthermore, a departure from the preferred schedule that is merely advantageous to the employer cannot satisfy the requirement stated in section 12(A) … as the existence of such an advantage does not, by itself, show that the preferred schedule is not capable of being put into practice. For this reason, the departure must be predicated on facts demonstrating that the preferred schedule would impose a material burden on the employer, and that the departure is necessary to alleviate such burden."

Turning to the dispute between Rodriguez and E.M.E., the court said the employer provided sufficient evidence to support its departure from the preferred schedule. The consolidated rest breaks were not detrimental to employees and—as demonstrated by the affidavits from current employees—preferred by the workers, who stated they liked having a single, longer rest period. In addition, the schedule enabled the employer to avoid material economic losses attributable to its production activities.

Although the court said E.M.E.'s showing would suffice to support its departure from the preferred schedule, Rodriguez raised triable issues precluding summary judgment. Based on his experience, the plaintiff argued that no material amount of production time was consumed before or after rest breaks and that E.M.E.'s evidence failed to demonstrate the exceptional circumstances required to justify the placement of both rest breaks before the meal break because the Wage Order did not impose a burden on the employer.

"Although we agree that the wage order does not conclusively bar combined rest breaks, E.M.E. and amici curiae have identified no authority establishing the permissibility of E.M.E.'s combined rest break as a matter of law," the panel added, reversing summary judgment in the defendant's favor on the rest break claims.

To read the opinion in Rodriguez v. E.M.E., Inc., click here.