Augustus v. ABM Security Services, Inc. (2016) 2 Cal. 5th 257

Employers are required to authorize 10 minute duty free rest breaks for their employees for every four hours of work, approximately in the middle of the four hours, under the IWC Wage Orders. The term “duty free rest periods” means employers “must relieve their employees of all duties and relinquish any control over how employees spend their time.”  In Augustus, the defendant employer’s policy authorized rest breaks, but required plaintiff security guards to remain “on call” and to keep their work pagers and radios on their person during their break. [1]

In a 5-2 decision, the California Supreme Court determined that the employer’s rest break policy failed to pass muster under California law because it did not provide the employees “with rest periods that are free from duties or employer control.”  The majority focused on the employer’s obligation to authorize off-duty rest breaks, noting that “[e]mployees forced to remain on call during a 10-minute rest period must fulfill certain duties” and that such “obligations are irreconcilable with employees’ retention of freedom to use rest periods for their own purposes.”

What made this decision so interesting, if not shocking, are the undisputed facts of the case showing that the security guards, in fact, were provided duty free rest periods. The security guards were able to use their rest breaks to walk to nearby destinations, smoke, read, and surf the internet. Even more, if a rest break was ever interrupted, the security guard was permitted to take another full rest break. The Court continues to extend more protections to workers without, in our opinion, grasping the practical nature of company operations.

Justice Leondra Kruger’s dissent emphasized these facts and noted that past approaches to the question of rest breaks focused on “whether the employer has imposed restrictions that interfere with the employee’s ability to use the time for his or her own purposes[.]” Reasoning that “a bare requirement to carry a radio, phone, pager, or other communications device in case of emergency does not constitute ‘work’ in any relevant sense of the term,” Justice Kruger concluded that, without more, a policy requiring “on call” rest breaks was not “incompatible with an employer’s obligation to provide off-duty rest breaks under California law.” She opined that the case should be remanded to determine whether the “on-call policy actually interfered with its employees’ ability to use their rest periods as periods of rest.”

Moral of the Story: Don’t let your employees take company cell phones or pagers on breaks and train them to disregard contact from the employer or coworkers during rest periods. But also make sure your written policies are up to date and complying with California labor laws.

The Augustus decision emphasizes the importance of well-crafted rest break policies. If you have questions about rest breaks or wish to have your rest break policy or other policies reviewed at no cost, please contact the Law Office of Karen J. Sloat.

[1] Augustus v. ABM Security Services, Inc. (2016) 2 Cal. 5th 257.