Over the past several years there has been a good deal of attention paid to meal and rest break obligations under California law. Just when employers thought it was safe to exhale (perhaps during a rest break?), the California Supreme Court's opinion in Augustus v. ABM Security Services, Inc., No. S224853 (Dec. 22, 2016), appears to have imposed a heightened standard for employer compliance in "single operator" workplace environments. Following Augustus, employers that require employees to remain on-call during rest breaks (even if they are not interrupted or called back to work) will be deemed as not having afforded those employees a valid break.
The Augustus plaintiffs filed a putative class action against ABM on behalf of the Company's security guards, claiming that ABM failed to properly provide rest breaks. Plaintiffs argued that ABM policy required security guards to keep pagers and radios on during rest breaks, respond when necessary (such as escorting tenants to parking lots, notifying building managers of mechanical issues and responding to emergency circumstances), and to remain vigilant. The trial court granted plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment on the underlying issue as well as on damages, awarding approximately $90 million in statutory damages, penalties and interest. After the Court of Appeal reversed, the California Supreme Court granted review to consider the Court of Appeal's decision.
The ABM security guards were governed by IWC Wage Order 4 (which regulates wages, hours and working conditions for professional, technical, clerical, mechanical and similar occupations). This Wage Order applies to a great many categories of employees, so the Augustus decision reaches far beyond the security industry. In evaluating the plaintiffs' claims in the context of California Labor Code Section 226.7 (which establishes the meal and rest break rules), the Supreme Court considered two issues: (1) whether California law requires employers to proactively authorize off-duty rest periods; and (2) whether requiring employees to remain on-call satisfies an employer's rest break obligation. As to the first question, the Court held that employers must "permit and authorize" employees to take off-duty rest periods, meaning employees must be relieved of their job duties and the employer must relinquish control over the way employees spend their time during rest breaks. As to the second issue, the Court held that on-call rest periods do...