Why it matters

A concrete company did not run afoul of California wage law by depriving workers of meal breaks because employees signed an agreement that provided them with a meal break upon request, a California appellate panel ruled, affirming a verdict in favor of the employer. Granite Rock Company produces a perishable concrete product that requires constant rotation to prevent hardening and pouring within 60-90 minutes to ensure structural integrity. In light of these constraints, the company provided mixer drivers with the option of signing an on-duty meal period agreement that provided them with a meal break upon request. Drivers that did not sign the agreement and were asked to work through a meal period received one hour of special pay. A group of drivers filed a putative class action based on missing meal breaks. Granite Rock argued the agreement and optional payment were valid under state law, and a trial court judge agreed. Affirming the trial court, the appellate panel determined the drivers failed to prove that the employer forced any workers to forgo a meal break.

Detailed discussion

Granite Rock, a concrete company, manufacturers, delivers, and pours concrete. The perishable product requires rotation at all times to prevent hardening and must be poured within 60-90 minutes to ensure its structural integrity. Mixer drivers for the company are tasked with monitoring the rotation of the truck drum, delivering the concrete, and pouring it at the construction sites.

Because of these constraints, the company provided its drivers with the option of signing an on-duty meal period agreement pursuant to Industrial Wage Commission Wage Order 1, which states: “when the nature of the work prevents an employee from being relieved of all duty and when by written agreement between the parties an on-the-job paid meal period is agreed to.”

Granite Rock posted information about the Wage Order and the company’s agreements and advised drivers that if they did not sign the agreement and were asked to work through a meal, they would receive one hour of special pay.

Five mixer drivers filed suit against their employer, claiming that they were not provided with meal periods as required by law. A trial court certified a class of approximately 200 current and former drivers and tried the case without a jury, finding that Granite Rock did not violate labor laws in its meal period policies.

The plaintiffs appealed, arguing that Granite Rock did not relieve them from all duty and relinquish control over them and how they spent their time, as required by state law, and that making an off-duty meal period available to employees at their election was insufficient to satisfy legal requirements.

But the appellate panel disagreed, affirming the verdict. “There was no evidence at trial that any mixer driver was ever denied an off-duty meal period when he or she requested,” the court wrote. “The evidence showed that any concrete mixer driver who did not sign an On-Duty Meal Period Agreement, or revoked such agreement was provided one hour of pay as required by law. The court further found that because concrete mixer drivers were aware of their rights and exercised those rights in requesting and always receiving off-duty meals when they wanted them, Granite Rock had met its legal obligation with regard to meal periods.”

In addition to the testimony of the drivers themselves, dispatchers testified at trial that drivers preferred to continue working rather than take an off-duty lunch so that they could get paid and be allowed to go home early. Some drivers denoted “no lunch” on their timecards with a “happy face” symbol.

The appellate panel emphasized the appropriateness of Granite Rock’s policies regarding meal periods in the context of the ready mix concrete industry. “When a driver is able to take a duty-free lunch period is dependent on the state of the concrete in his or her truck, and the nature of the construction job to which the driver is attending,” the court explained, and the nature of the concrete mixing and delivering industry makes the scheduling of off-duty meal periods in advance nearly impossible.

“The law is clear that an employer is not required to schedule meal periods in order to comply with their legal meal-period obligations,” the panel wrote. “Moreover, an employer is not required to guarantee or ensure that an employee take a 30-minute off-duty meal period. Rather … the employer’s duty is to provide a 30-minute off-duty lunch period that is free from an employer’s control.”

Mixer drivers were given the opportunity to take an off-duty meal period each day and could freely choose to take it or not, the court said; when a concrete mixer driver requested to have an off-duty meal period, Granite Rock granted the request without fail, and relinquished all control of the employee for the 30-minute period, satisfying the employer’s legal requirements.

To read the decision in Driscoll v. Granite Rock Company, click here.