When must rest breaks occur, and may a company allow employees to combine their rest breaks with other breaks? California’s nuanced meal and rest break rules have spawned an endless cycle of litigation, and as a recent appellate court case illustrates, the rules remain imprecise. 

Rodriguez v. E.M.E., Inc., (Second Appellate District,), which was decided on April 22, 2016, involved a metal finishing shop that had a practice of combining two daily 10-minute rest breaks into one 20-minute break each morning. According to the shop, management and employees had reached an informal agreement that combining the breaks was preferred over two 10-minute breaks: The employees preferred the extended time to cook morning meals. In addition, because shutting down and reactivating the production line took 20 minutes, a combined break also served to increased productivity. 

A former employee filed a class action complaint against E.M.E., Inc., claiming that the rest break practice violated California law. The employee alleged that under the circumstances of this workplace, the California Labor Code and the applicable wage order mandated that employers take two separate 10-minute rest breaks during an 8 hour shift, one before the meal break and one after. 

The employee disputed the company’s contention at trial that a combined break was necessary. He testified that the time necessary to shut down and start the production line was “20-30 seconds at most.”

California’s Rest Break Rules: “Insofar as Practicable”

Wage Order No. 1, which covers the manufacturing industry, provides the following:

Every employer shall authorize and permit all employees to take rest periods, which insofar as practicable shall be in the middle of each work period. The authorized rest period time shall be based on the total hours worked daily at the rate of ten (10) minutes net rest time per four (4) hours or major fraction thereof.

The Supreme Court of California addressed rest break timing in its 2012 decision in Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. The Superior Court of San Diego County. In that case, the supreme court rejected the contention that employers are required to provide a rest period before a meal break. The court noted that the only constraint in the applicable wage order was that “rest breaks must fall in the middle of work periods ‘insofar as practicable.’” The court stated: “Employers are . . . subject to a duty to make a good faith effort to authorize and permit rest breaks in the middle of each work period, but may deviate from that preferred course where practical considerations render it infeasible.” The court declined to offer any opinion on what considerations might be legally sufficient to justify such a departure. 

No Summary Judgment for Employer

In Rodriguez, the employer filed a motion for summary judgment. The trial court denied the motion, finding triable issues of fact as to whether or not practical considerations rendered it infeasible to permit rest breaks in the middle of each work period. On appeal, a panel of the California Court of Appeal affirmed this ruling. 

The appellate court focused on the wage order’s requirement that rest breaks occur in the middle of each work period “insofar as practicable.” After consulting the dictionary and reviewing precedential decisions interpreting similar phrases, the court wrote:

the phrase “insofar as practicable” directs employers to implement the specified rest break schedule absent an adequate justification why such a schedule is not capable of being put into practice, or is not feasible as a practical schedule.

The court concluded that “a departure from the preferred schedule is permissible only when the departure (1) will not unduly affect employee welfare and (2) is tailored to alleviate a material burden that would be imposed on the employer by implementing the preferred schedule.” The court emphasized that the wage order “must be construed in a manner that promotes its ‘protective intent’, namely, to safeguard employee health and welfare.” According to the court, a preferred schedule that is “merely advantageous to the employer” cannot satisfy this requirement. 

Given this interpretation of Wage Order No. 1, the appellate court concluded that summary judgment could not be granted in favor of the employer because the evidence supporting the reasons for the combined break was in dispute. The court began by noting that the company’s showing in support of its rest break schedules, if indisputably true, would justify the 20-minute break combination. The company’s evidence showed that the combination did not harm the employees, who preferred that arrangement and that the combined break enabled it to avoid material economic losses attributable to its particular production activities. 

However, the employee’s evidence put some of those facts in dispute. The employee’s testimony that shutting down for breaks took only seconds contradicted the company’s evidence that it took several minutes. Faced with a dispute in evidence, the court determined that the motion for summary judgment must be denied. 

Practical Tips

As this case demonstrates, California’s meal and rest period rules are extremely technical and nuanced. To comply with the law, California employers will want to adopt carefully crafted break policies and train supervisors on implementing these policies. As a general rule of thumb, in an 8-hour shift, one 10-minute break should take place in the middle of the first work period before the meal break, and a second rest break should take place in the middle of the second work period after the meal break. However, as the Rodriguez court confirmed, deviations are lawful under the right circumstances. Employers should carefully evaluate the circumstances justifying such a deviation in order to minimize the risk of legal liability.  


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