Why it matters

As employers are not required to “police” whether or not workers take meal breaks, a California appellate panel dismissed a putative class action suit seeking payment for missed breaks under state law. Norma Serrano filed a putative class action against Aerotek Inc., a company that provided temporary employees to Bay Bread. Aerotek’s on-site account manager visited the Bay Bread facility twice each day but did not check for issues with meal breaks. Serrano never discussed the issue with the manager but later filed suit for violations of state labor law over missed breaks. Affirming judgment in favor of Aerotek, the appellate panel said that proof that an employer had knowledge of employees working through meal breaks will not subject the employer to liability. The contract between Aerotek and Bay Bread required the bread company to comply with applicable laws, and Aerotek provided its break policy to employees and trained them on it, including the need to inform the company if they believed they were being prevented from taking breaks, the court said. Refusing to require employers to police whether or not employees take meal breaks, the court affirmed dismissal.

Detailed discussion

Aerotek Inc., a staffing agency that places temporary employees with its clients, entered into a contract with Bay Bread, a food production facility in San Francisco. Pursuant to the agreement, temporary employees would work under Bay Bread’s management and supervision, with Bay Bread promising to comply with applicable federal, state and local laws.

Aerotek’s policies that applied to temporary employees were set forth in an employee handbook. The meal policy stated that after a work period of more than five hours, hourly employees must be provided with an uninterrupted 30-minute off-duty meal break. If the workday was no more than six hours, however, the employee may elect to waive the off-duty meal period in advance by written agreement.

The policy also stated that if an employee believed he or she was being prevented from taking an authorized meal period, the employee should immediately report the matter to Aerotek. Aerotek had an on-site account manager who visited the production facility twice a day for walk-throughs but was not tasked with checking for meal break violations.

Hired by Aerotek, Norma Serrano worked in Bay Bread’s production facility in 2012 and 2013. Both times, she signed forms acknowledging she received the employee handbook as well as forms waiving a meal period on any day she worked no more than six hours.

She later filed suit against Aerotek, alleging violations of state labor law for failure to provide meal periods. Time records showed that on several days on which she worked more than six hours, she took her meal breaks more than five hours after beginning work, and in a few instances did not take a meal break at all.

Aerotek moved for summary judgment, and a trial court granted the motion. Serrano appealed. Relying heavily on the California Supreme Court’s 2012 opinion in Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court, the appellate panel affirmed.

In Brinker, the court held that employers are not required “to police meal breaks and ensure no work thereafter is performed,” and that “[p]roof an employer had knowledge of employees working through meal periods will not alone subject the employer to liability for premium pay.”

The panel was careful to note it was not suggesting “that a temporary staffing agency meets its duty and immunizes itself from liability by merely promulgating a compliant meal period policy without regard to a client’s implementation of it.” Aerotek did more than that, the court said.

“The contract between the parties required Bay Bread to comply with applicable laws, Aerotek provided its meal period policy to temporary employees and trained them on it during orientation, and the policy required them to notify Aerotek if they believed they were being prevented from taking meal breaks,” the court said. “Serrano fails to convince us that anything more is required of staffing agencies when they provide temporary employees to other companies.”

Nor did Aerotek’s failure to review time records and investigate whether meal period violations were occurring constitute a breach of its own duty to provide meal periods, the court held. The plaintiff “provides no authority to suggest that Aerotek could not fulfill its duty to provide meal breaks without investigating whether those breaks were being taken, and we specifically reject her contention that ‘time records show[ing] late and missed meal periods creat[ed] a presumption of violations.’”

“Even if Aerotek had actual or constructive knowledge that she was not taking her meal breaks within five hours of starting work, Brinker makes clear that such knowledge does not establish liability because an employer has no obligation to ensure that employees actually take provided breaks,” the panel wrote. “In short, Serrano’s attempt to impose a heightened duty on Aerotek finds no support in Brinker or any other relevant authority. The trial court correctly determined that there was no triable issue of material fact as to whether Aerotek fulfilled its own duty to provide meal periods.”

To read the decision in Serrano v. Aerotek, Inc., click here.