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State Supreme Court hears employee rest, meal break case

November 8, 2011 | 11:53 am

Photo: Efrain Leyvas, left, and Ruben Castellanos take a 30-minute break from their work in Los Angeles. Credit: Los Angeles Times The California Supreme Court, considering a case that will affect meal and rest breaks for all nonunion hourly workers, appeared inclined Tuesday to give employees flexibility in choosing whether or not take to scheduled breaks.

The potential class-action lawsuit before the state high court is expected to clarify labor requirements for meal and rest breaks, an issue that has flooded the courts with suits against a wide array of industries.

Lawyers for workers want the court to require employers to ensure that employees take breaks. They argue that employers make it impossible for many workers to take scheduled breaks by imposing hefty workloads that employees can’t possibly complete in the hours they are given.

But several members of the court seemed skeptical of imposing rigid requirements.

“Let’s  assume one has hundreds or even thousands of employees," said Justice Joyce L. Kennard, one of the more liberal members of the court. “How is an employer going to ensure each of these hundreds of workers or thousands of workers  is actually taking a meal break? Why not give some flexibility?”

Kennard raised the example of a nurse who, while trying to save someone’s life, is interrupted and told, “It’s  time for a meal break.”

Justice Marvin Baxter, one of the court’s most conservative members,  asked why an employer should have to fire  a worker who “enjoys his work” and fails to take a scheduled break. “How is that protective of a worker?”  Baxter asked.

But the court also indicated its ruling, due in 90 days, may impose requirements that employers have not consistently followed.  Baxter questioned whether the court was required to make all of its decisions retroactive. Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye implied that the ruling would be retroactive.

Scott Witlin, a Century City lawyer who represents employers, predicted the court would reach a split decision, ruling for employers on some issues, workers on others.

“The paternalistic idea that you have to force adults to take meal is going to be rejected,” said  Witlin, who watched the hearing, which was broadcast live on cable television and the Internet.  But he added, “I wouldn’t be surprised by a mixed decision -- something for everybody to hate.”


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Photo: Efrain Leyvas, left, and Ruben Castellanos take a 30-minute break from their work in Los Angeles. Credit: Los Angeles Times