On Dec. 22, 2016, the California Supreme Court ruled in Augustus, et al. v. ABM Security Services, Inc. that an employer’s policy requiring employees to remain “on call” during paid rest breaks violated state law. This decision has potentially wide-ranging implications for employers who operate in California and have policies that restrict employee activities during rest breaks.

The plaintiffs in Augustus were security guards who worked at various different locations for their employer’s clients around California. They were required to keep their radios and pagers on and “remain vigilant” during their statutorily mandated 10-minute paid rest breaks, in case an incident arose during that time requiring them to respond. The plaintiffs filed a putative class action on grounds that their employer failed to “authorize and permit” uninterrupted rest breaks as required by state law. Although there was evidence that the security guards regularly took uninterrupted rest breaks, the trial court nevertheless ruled that being “on call” during their breaks was akin to no break at all because they were subject to their employer’s control during the breaks. The trial court entered judgment in favor of the plaintiff class, of approximately $90 million in statutory damages, interest and penalties. The defendant appealed.

California’s 2nd District Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s decision, and held that the employer’s on-call policy had not violated state law rest-break requirements. It reasoned that simply being on call during rest periods is not equivalent to performing work during the rest periods, particularly where there was significant evidence of class members regularly receiving uninterrupted rest breaks.

The California Supreme Court granted review in order to address two related issues: (1) whether employers are required to permit employees to take off-duty rest periods, and (2) whether employers may require their employees to remain on call during rest periods.

As to the first issue, the Supreme Court held that employers must authorize and permit employees to take off-duty rest periods, during which time the employer must relinquish all control over how they spend their time.

As to the second issue, the Supreme Court similarly concluded that requiring employees to be “at the ready” and “tethered” to particular locations or communication devices cannot be reconciled with the requirement to relieve them of all duties and employer control during rest breaks. The court noted that if an employer needs to interrupt an employee’s rest break, it can simply provide the employee with another rest break or pay the employee one hour of premium pay for the missed rest break.

The California Supreme Court’s decision in Augustus has potentially wide-ranging implications and will likely lead to increased rest-break litigation, particularly for companies that have policies or practices that require employees to remain on premises or on call during rest breaks. For employers outside of California, although federal law does not mandate rest breaks, similar issues arise concerning whether breaks of 20 minutes or longer are compensable. Consequently, employers everywhere should review their rest- and meal-break policies and modify them as necessary.