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.

On October 14, 2017, California Governor Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 1701, which will make general contractors liable for their subcontractors’ employees’ unpaid wages if the subcontractor fails to pay wages due.  The new law will go into effect on January 1, 2018.

Specifically, section 218.7 has been added to the Labor Code. Subdivision (a)(1) provides the following:

For contracts entered into on or after January 1, 2018, a direct contractor making or taking a contract in the state for the erection, construction, alteration, or repair of a building, structure, or other private work, shall assume, and is liable for, any debt owed to a wage claimant or third party on the wage claimant’s behalf, incurred by a subcontractor at any tier acting under, by, or for the direct contractor for the wage claimant’s performance of labor included in the subject of the contract between the direct contractor and the owner.

Under section 218.7, the direct contractor’s liability will extend only to any unpaid wage, fringe benefit or other benefit payments or contributions – including interest – but will not extend to penalties or liquidated damages.

Section 218.7 makes clear that nothing in it “shall be construed to impose liability on a direct contractor for anything other than unpaid wages and fringe or other benefit payments or contributions including interest owed.”

Notably, employees will not have standing to enforce section 218.7 on their own. That is, AB 1701 gives the California Labor Commissioner, labor-management cooperation committees, and unions the right to bring an action against the direct contractor, but it does not provide any private right of action to potentially unpaid employees themselves to bring a claim against the direct contractor for unpaid wages.

For labor-management cooperation committees and unions who prevail in an action against a direct contractor for unpaid wages, they will be entitled to their reasonable attorney’s fees and costs, including expert witness fees.

For judgments rendered against direct contractors, their property may be attached to satisfy judgment.

Direct contractors will now be provided the right to request from their subcontractors their employees’ wage statements under Labor Code section 226(a) and payroll records that must be maintained under section 1174.  Such “records must contain information sufficient to apprise the requesting party of the subcontractor’s payment status in making fringe or other benefit payments or contributions to a third party on the employee’s behalf.”

Direct contractors and subcontractors also have the right to request from subcontractors below them “award information that includes the project name, name and address of the subcontractor, contractor with whom the subcontractor is under contract, anticipated start date, duration, and estimated journeymen and apprentice hours, and contact information for its subcontractors on the project.”

Significantly, a direct contractor may withhold as “disputed” all sums owed if a subcontractor fails to timely provide the payroll or project information referenced above, until that information is provided.

The new statute will make it more important than ever for contractors in California to ensure that they are doing business with reputable subcontractors. As part of those efforts, they will want to consider taking steps to ensure that their subcontractor agreements include adequate indemnification provisions and assurances that the subcontractors will comply with wage-hour laws, and perhaps even a term requiring subcontractors to provide periodic statements ensuring compliance with the law.  Of course, there will be a delicate balance to strike to avoid “joint employer” status.

Additionally, the Labor Commissioner, labor-management cooperation committees, and unions may argue that the term “wages” extends to meal and rest period premiums for missed, short, or non-compliant meal and rest periods. Accordingly, contractors in California may want to include specific assurances that subcontractors have compliant meal and rest period policies and practices, in addition to compliant wage and overtime policies and practices.

As if traffic in California was not bad enough by itself, employers in the trucking industry have one more thing to worry about – whether they are complying with California’s meal and rest break laws.  In  Dilts v. Penske Logistics, LLC, the plaintiffs represent a class of delivery drivers and installers.  Defendants had hoped to avoid the claim that they had violated California’s meal and rest break laws by arguing that as “motor carriers” the Federal Aviation Administration Authorization Act of 1994 (“FAAAA”) preempts California’s meal and rest break laws.  The trial court agreed and granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment.  However,  the Ninth Circuit reversed finding that California’s meal and rest break laws are not the type of laws related to prices, routes, or services that Congress intended to preempt.

Defendants argued, among other things, that the requirement that drivers pull over and stop for each break period necessarily dictates that they alter their routes and that finding routes that allow drivers to comply with California’s meal and rest break laws will limit motor carriers to a smaller set of possible routes.  However, the Ninth Circuit was not persuaded.  Thus, motor carriers doing business in California which have relied on the FAAAA preemption, should carefully review their meal and rest break policies and practices to ensure that they comply with California law.

By Michael Kun

Yesterday, only weeks after its long-awaited Brinker v. Superior Court decision, the California Supreme Court issued another important ruling on California meal and rest period laws. 

In Kirby v. Immoos Fire Protection, Inc., the Supreme Court ruled that neither party may recover attorney’s fees on claims involving meal and rest periods.  The Court analyzed the legislative history of the meal and rest period provisions and concluded, “We believe the most plausible inference to be drawn from history is that the Legislature intended [meal and rest period] claims to be governed by the default American rule that each side must cover its own attorney’s fees.” 

Although plaintiffs’ counsel throughout the state have tried to put a happy face on this decision, claiming a victory because plaintiffs cannot be made to pay an employer’s attorney’s fees should the employer prevail, the decision is plainly a victory for employers.  Rarely, if ever, are plaintiffs made to pay an employer’s attorney’s fees in a meal and rest period case, while employers are routinely asked to do as part of the resolution of such cases.  And as employers who have faced meal and rest period class actions know, the resolution of those cases has often turned on disputes over plaintiffs’ counsel’s fees, where it has not been unusual for plaintiffs’ counsel to seek fees that dwarf the recovery they seek for the employees themselves. 

While Kirby will have a great impact on meal and rest period cases, it is unlikely to spell the end of those cases.  Instead, employers can expect that plaintiffs’ counsel will include claims for which attorney’s fees can be recovered, such as claims for unpaid overtime or claims under the Private Attorneys General Act, and that they will later contend that most of their time was devoted to those claims, not the meal and rest period claims.

Additionally, employers should be aware that the Supreme Court all but invited the state legislature to add an attorney’s fees provision for meal and rest period violations: “it is up to the Legislature to decide whether [minimum wage law’s] one-way fee-shifting provision should be broadened to include [meal and rest period] actions.”

By:  Michael Kun

This morning, the California Supreme Court has just issued its long-awaited decision in the Brinker case regarding meal and period requirements.   It is largely, but not entirely, a victory for employers.  A copy of the decision is here.

A few highlights of the decision:

On rest periods, the Court confirmed the certification of a rest period class because Brinker’s written policy arguably did not comply with the law as to the second rest period in a day.  In so doing, it clarified when employees are entitled to rest periods:

·         Employees are entitled to 10 minutes’ rest for shifts from three and one-half to six hours in length, 20 minutes for shifts of more than six hours up to 10 hours, 30 minutes for shifts of more than 10 hours up to 14 hours, and so on. (page 20)

On meal periods, the Court confirmed that meal periods need not be “ensured,” and that employers have no obligation to “police” them:

·         An employer’s duty with respect to meal breaks under both section 512, subdivision (a) and Wage Order No. 5 is an obligation to provide a meal period to its employees. The employer satisfies this obligation if it relieves its employees of all duty, relinquishes control over their activities and permits them a reasonable opportunity to take an uninterrupted 30-minute break, and does not impede or discourage them from doing so….. On the other hand, the employer is not obligated to police meal breaks and ensure no work thereafter is performed. Bona fide relief from duty and the relinquishing of control satisfies the employer’s obligations, and work by a relieved employee during a meal break does not thereby place the employer in violation of its obligations and create liability for premium pay under Wage Order No. 5, subdivision 11(B) and Labor Code section 226.7, subdivision (b). (page 36)

The Court also rejected the plaintiffs’ argument in favor of “rolling” meal periods (i.e., the argument that an employee who takes an early meal period is entitled to another meal period within the next five hours, even if he or she works less than 10 hours):

·         We conclude that, absent waiver, section 512 requires a first meal period no later than the end of an employee’s fifth hour of work, and a second meal period no later than the end of an employee’s 10th hour of work. (page 37)

Unfortunately, confirming that meal period claims will continue to be litigated in California for years to come, the Court added the following caveat:

·         What will suffice may vary from industry to industry, and we cannot in the context of this class certification proceeding delineate the full range of approaches that in each instance might be sufficient to satisfy the law.   (page 36)

A more comprehensive analysis of the decision and its impact upon California employers – and the meal and rest period class actions that have besieged California employers – will be forthcoming. 

By Michael Kun and Aaron Olsen

Plaintiffs seeking to bring state law wage-hour class actions against employers in the trucking industry have run into a significant road block in California.  For the second time in a year, a United States District Court has held that claims based on California’s meal and rest period laws are preempted by federal law.

In Esquivel et al. v. Performance Food Group Inc., the plaintiffs claimed the defendant scheduled their delivery routes such that the plaintiffs were unable to take duty-free meal periods.  The defendant argued that the Federal Aviation Administration Authorization Act (“FAAA”) preempted California’s meal and rest period laws.  Judge Nguyen of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California agreed with the defendant and dismissed the plaintiffs’ complaint with prejudice.  This decision comes only months after the Southern District of California’s October 2011 ruling in Dilts v. Penske Logistics, LLC, also holding that California’s meal and rest period laws are within the preemptive scope of the FAAAA.  Both courts found that the length and timing of meal and rest periods are “directly and significantly related to such things as the frequency and scheduling of transportation” such that requiring off-duty meal and rest periods at specific times would interfere with competitive market forces within the industry.

As employers with operations in California know, class actions alleging that employees missed meal or rest periods have become commonplace.  These two victories are significant ones for employers in the trucking industry.  However, the plaintiffs in both cases are seeking to appeal the decisions.  Trucking industry employers will want to monitor those appeals closely as it is always difficult to predict how the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals will rule.    

By Michael Kun

It appears that oral argument before the California Supreme Court in Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court will be broadcast live on-line on the California Channel on November 8, 2011 at 9 a.m.   While it is unlikely this will inspire families to gather around their computers as they gathered around their radios to listen to breaking news decades ago, more than a few employers with operations in California may want to listen to this oral argument on a critical issue that affects all such employers – whether employee meal and rest breaks must be “ensured” or merely made “available.”

If the California Supreme Court rules that meal and rest breaks must be “ensured,” most employers will need to implement new policies and practices the very next day.  And most will be vulnerable to the very type of wage-hour class actions that have besieged California employers for the past decade. 

By Michael Kun

Some were beginning to wonder whether it would ever happen.  After more than two years, the California Supreme Court has announced a hearing date in the much-awaited Brinker v. Superior Court case — November 8, 2011.

Unless the Court takes a detour, California employers should finally know the answer to a question that has long driven California’s billion dollar wage-hour class action industry — must an employer "ensure" that employers take meal and rest periods, or are they only required to make them "available" to employees. 

Should the Supreme Court rule that employers need only make them "available," wage-hour class actions will not grind to a halt.  Plaintiffs’ counsel will merely change their allegations to allege that meal and rest breaks were not made "available."  But most employers should have valid defenses to such claims, and, perhaps just as importantly, they will not need to revise the way they operate. 

However, should the Supreme Court rule that employers must "ensure" that meal and rest breaks be taken, virtually every employer that does business in California will be vulnerable to wage-hour actions reaching back four years.   

While it is tempting to do so, employers should not sit back and merely wait for the Brinker ruling.   While employers should hope for the best, they would be wise to prepare for the worst.  Indeed, because the Brinker Court may well rule that meal and rest periods must be "ensured," employers should be prepared to implement new policies and practices the very next day.  Having those new policies and practices drawn up and ready to implement on short notice could help stave off future claims, damages and penalties.   

With any luck, those policies and practices may never be needed.