The expansive interpretation of meal and rest break regulations continues in Washington State, as the state's highest court ruled in Demetrio v. Sakuma Brothers Farms, Inc., Case No. 90932-6 (Wash. Sup. Ct. July 16, 2015), that agricultural piece-rate workers are entitled to separate paid rest breaks. The court reasoned that hourly workers remain "on the clock" during rest breaks, and thus piece-rate workers should receive the same treatment.
In 2013, two agricultural workers sued their employer on behalf of hundreds of migrant and seasonal workers. The workers handpicked berries, and the employer paid them a "piece rate" wage based on their productivity—in other words, a flat amount per pound or per box of fruit harvested. As part of their lawsuit, the workers claimed they did not receive paid rest breaks.
Separate Pay for Rest Breaks
The relevant regulation provides: "Every employee shall be allowed a rest period of at least ten minutes, on the employer's time, in each four-hour period of employment. For purposes of computing the minimum wage on a piecework basis, the time allotted an employee for rest periods shall be included in the number of hours for which the minimum wage must be paid." WAC 296-131-020(2) (emphasis added).
The court focused on the meaning of the phrase "on the employer's time," concluding it required pay separate from the piece rate for rest breaks. The court looked not only to the plain language of the regulation, but also emphasized its obligation to advance the intended purpose of the regulation. In line with its previous decisions,1 which interpreted the meal and rest break regulations "in a way that protected workers' rights," the court refused to "incentivize missed rest breaks at the expense of the employee's health."
The court rejected the employer's interpretation of the regulation, which built pay for rest breaks into the piece rate instead of paying separately for rest breaks. The employer argued that this all-inclusive piece rate awarded more productive workers with greater earnings. The court, however, judged that this philosophy would encourage employees to work harder (and earn more) by skipping breaks. Such a result conflicted with Washington's evolving case law on meal and rest breaks and the state's intent to protect the health and welfare of employees.
Regular Rate for Rest Breaks
The second question considered by the court was the rate of pay required for employee rest breaks. Following prior rulings that treated rest periods as hours worked, the court held that rest periods must be paid at the same rate as "active labor." Thus, pieceworkers are entitled to their regular rate of pay for rest break time. To calculate the regular rate, employers add the total piece rate earnings and divide them by the hours worked (excluding rest break time).
Agricultural employers in Washington State who pay on a piece-rate basis may need to evaluate their practices to ensure compliance, including their rest break policies, calculation of pay for rest breaks, and reporting procedures for missed breaks.