When it’s time to take a break at work, is that time really your own time? In California, the law generally requires employers to provide their employees with rest breaks, as well as meal breaks, based on the number of hours they work in a day. For example, employees in California are generally entitled to a 10-minute paid rest break for every four hours you work. If the employer does not provide a rest break, or makes employees work through the break, the employer is assessed a penalty equivalent to one hour’s pay.
The California Supreme Court recently decided a case about whether employees could be required to stay “on call” during their mandated rest breaks. In Augustus v. ABM Security Services, Inc., security guards were allowed their ten-minute breaks, but were required to have their pagers and radios with them at all times, as well as to “remain vigilant” during their breaks. In addition, the company required guards to respond to issues that arose during their breaks, ranging from emergencies to routine maintenance requests.
The Court decided that during a break, employees must be off duty and free from employer control over how they spend their break time. The Court also decided that forcing employees to remain “on call” during their breaks put additional constraints on how employees used their break time. These constraints meant that employees weren’t free to use their time as they wanted. The Court concluded that “California law requires employers to relieve their employees of all work-related duties and employer control during 10-minute rest periods.”
What about time when you are behind the wheel? And does the regulation of motor carriers at the federal level affect your right to take a break? In 2014, the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers California, concluded that California break-time laws apply to drivers, and are not preempted by federal laws regulating motor carriers. In that case, Dilts v. Penske Logistics, Inc., the drivers, who worked exclusively within California and usually worked 10 hours or more a day, said that the company discouraged them from actually taking their meal and rest breaks. The appeals court ruled that federal regulation of prices, routes, and services in the trucking industry do not override state laws like California that require break time for employees. That case ultimately ended in a settlement, which awarded money to current and former Penske drivers. (In 2015, a federal trial court in California reached the same result with regard to California drivers who drive interstate. Yoder v. Western Express.)
The conclusion is that when it’s time to take a break, that time belongs to you. Employer policies that require you to work during some or part of your break are against the law, and this includes policies that require you to remain “on call.” The same thing happens when the employer lets you have a break, but still exercises control over what you can do with your time. The California Supreme Court recognized that employees should have “freedom to use rest periods for their own purposes,” and not have to spend them waiting for their next assignment.
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