The Washington Supreme Court recently issued an opinion related to waived meal periods and the expectation of employers. In essence, until this decision, employers could defend against a meal period violation by demonstrating it provided employees with a meaningful opportunity for a meal period. Now, employers have an obligation to ensure that the meal period was taken, unless waived. If the employee alleges she was not provided with a meal break and denies waiving the break it is the employer's burden to prove either that the meal period was in fact taken or that a valid waiver existed.

In Brady v. Autozone Stores, Inc., the Plaintiff filed a class action lawsuit alleging that he and the other employees were prevented from taking meal periods, and seeking compensation for those meal periods. When the Plaintiff sought to certify a class on that claim, the Court denied the motion. In refusing to certify a class, “the district court concluded that employers have met their obligation under the law if they ensure that employees have the opportunity for a meaningful meal break, free from coercion or any other impediment” and rejected the argument that an employer is strictly liable whenever an employee misses a meal break. The Plaintiff disagreed that this was a proper statement of Washington State law, and asked that the federal court ask the Washington Supreme Court to clarify the law. The federal court agreed, and asked the state court to answer two questions “1. Is an employer strictly liable under WAC 296-126-092” and “2. If an employer is not strictly liable under WAC 296-126-092, does the employee carry the burden to prove that his employer did not permit the employee an opportunity to take a meaningful break as required by WAC 296-126-092?”

As to the first question, the Court analyzed the text of the regulation. It noted that the regulation provides that employers are required to provide an unpaid meal period between 2 and 5 hours into a shift, and that employees can waive that meal period if they so chose. It then reasoned that because an employee can waive meal periods, an employer cannot be held liable simply because an employee missed a meal period.

The Court next addressed the second question, whether employers or employees are required to prove whether an employee had a meaningful opportunity for a break. Defendants asked the Court to adopt the test used by the California Supreme Court in Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court, 53 Cal. 4th 1004, 273 P.3d 513, 139 Cal. Rptr. 3d 315 (2012), which provided that employers were required only to provide a “reasonable opportunity to take an uninterrupted 30-minute break, and does not impede or discourage them from doing so.” The Court refused to adopt this test in part because it found that Washington law “ultimately provides greater protection for workers” than the Brinker court did. In the end, the Court held that where an employee can provide evidence that he or she did not receive a meal break, then the burden shifts to the employer to prove that “no violation occurred or that a valid waiver exists.”

This case is just the latest in a number of cases handed down by Washington Courts focusing on employee rest breaks and meal periods which impact employers. It is important to note it still does not require that rest breaks be scheduled or that meal periods be taken, but it does place a higher importance on documenting that rest breaks are taken. Washington employers can no longer argue that the employee had a meaningful opportunity to take a break and chose not to do so. The employer will need to have a signed waiver if any meal period is missed or face the risk of when an employee misses a meal period (even if it was agreed upon) but there is no written waiver the employer will face liability. There is also discussion about how this affects rest periods and based on the Court’s opinion employers should anticipate being held responsible to documenting when those rest periods have been taken.

To read the full decision, please click here.