On August 13, 2018, in Ehret v. WinCo Foods, the California Court of Appeal held that a provision in a collective bargaining agreement (“CBA”) regarding employees’ meal periods during shifts lasting between five and six hours effectively waived employees’ rights under California Labor Code section 512. In so holding, the Court held that the waiver in question passed the “clear and unmistakable” standard used to determine whether a provision in a CBA is intended to waive a statutorily protected right. Although WinCo argued that the “clear and unmistakable” standard only applies to waivers of “non-negotiable” rights, not “negotiable” rights like a meal break for shifts between five and six hours, the Court avoided that question and found that, even assuming that the standard applies to waivers of any statutory right, negotiable or non-negotiable, the waiver in the WinCo CBA was “clear and unmistakable.”
California Labor Code section 512(a) states, in part: “An employer may not employ an employee for a work period of more than five hours per day without providing the employee with a meal period of not less than 30 minutes, except that if the total work period per day of the employee is no more than six hours, the meal period may be waived by mutual consent of both the employer and employee.” (Emphasis added.)
The WinCo CBA in question provided: “Employees who work shifts of more than 5 hours will be provided a meal period of at least 30 minutes, except that when a work period of not more than 6 hours will complete a day[']s work, a meal period is not required…. It is WinCo Foods policy not to mutually agree with employees to waive their lunch period.” (Emphasis in original.)
The Court held that the agreement effectively waived employees’ meal periods because it explicitly stated that no meal period is required for shifts of under six hours. Because that provision was “flatly irreconcilable” with Labor Code section 512, the Court held that it was a “clear and unmistakable” waiver of that statutory provision. Importantly, the Court distinguished cases that concern arbitration clauses in CBAs, which have held that statutory rights must be clearly stated in the agreement before they can be waived. The Court also rejected the employees’ contention that, under Choate v. Celite Corporation, 215 Cal. App. 4th 1460 (2013), to be valid, the waiver must either cite to the applicable statute explicitly or “specify the content of the statutory right.” Rather, the Court interpreted Choate to hold that the waiver need only “mention” the statutory protection.
The Court found of no import that the CBA also stated: “It is WinCo Foods policy to not mutually agree with employees to waive their lunch periods.” The Court held that that section of the agreement referred to waivers by individual employees, and had no effect on the collective waiver in question. The Court also flatly rejected the employees’ argument that a waiver must explicitly use the words “waiver,” “waived” or “waiving.”
This decision is welcome news to employers that have similar provisions in their CBAs. However, it is not binding upon other Courts of Appeal, and should the California Supreme Court decide to review the issue, it may well reach a different conclusion.