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Dec 19 2012

No Such Thing as a Free Lunch: ConocoPhillips to pay $15.5 Million to Settle Meal Break Lawsuit

In a case that establishes the potential results of violating State wage and hour laws, refinery workers have reached a $15.5 million deal to resolve their class action against ConocoPhillips Co. that accused the company of failing to provide them with meal breaks during which they were relieved of all duties, the plaintiffs told a California federal court Monday.

The Federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) does not require an employer to provide a meal break to employees, so meal breaks are regulated by State law. Earlier this year, the California Supreme Court outlined what an employer must do in providing a meal break to an employee. Unless all of the following criteria are met, the employee is entitled to additional compensation for working through a meal break:

(1) The employer must relieve the employee of all duty;
(2) The employer must relinquish control over all activities of the employee;
(3) The employer must permit a reasonable opportunity to take an uninterrupted 30-minute breaks; and
(4) The employer must not impede or discourage the employee from taking their 30-minute meal break.

Only if all of the above are met will an employee be deemed to have taken “a break.” In particular, the California Supreme Court noted that the “wage order and the governing statute do not countenance an employer’s exerting coercion against the taking of, creating incentives to forego, or otherwise encouraging the skipping of legally protected breaks.” Brinker Restaurant Corporation, Inc. v. Superior Court, 53 Cal.4th 1004 (Cal.Sup.Ct. 2012). The decision firmly establishes that the long time practice of employer’s having a “company policy” in their employee handbook that “permits” meal breaks will not be legal if there is an actual practice of managers pressuring employees to work through their breaks.

Most States, New York included, similarly require that the break be a “true break” meaning that if the employee is asked to do any one task, no matter how menial, during the break, it is not a true meal break and he must be compensated for that time and provided an additional half hour free from all labor. Workers at Conoco alleged that they were pressured to work through breaks by management and brought this class action claim. Until 2000, California workers could only bring an injunction to enforce the meal breaks, but that year the Legislature instituted money damages as an additional remedy for violating this requirement. As expected, this change in law brought a flurry of class action litigation, with this one being the largest settlement of such a claim ever reported.

ConocoPhillips, the fourth largest corporation in the US and the fifth largest oil refiner in the world, can handle this financial hit. I would, however, warn employers of a lesser size to act with extreme care in light of this settlement. It presents a clear cautionary tale about the potential exposure of making workers work through meals. The hospitality industry (restaurants and hotels) in particular would be wise to instruct managers and kitchen staff that a place should be set aside for workers to be able to take their meals uninterrupted. Too often in this industry, staff “eat on the fly” or don’t eat at all until the end of their shift or grab a bite while peeling potatoes or chopping onions. Such actions could lead to the filing of a lawsuit by staff for violating the meal breaks provided for by State and local laws. While it may not result in a $15 Million settlement, it could end up taking a bite out of any company’s bottom line.

2 comments

  1. juan m. rivera

    would this apply to pennsylvania

    1. Oscar Michelen

      Meal breaks are governed by each State’s Labor Law since the Federal Fair Labor Standards Act does not require employers to give meal breaks. While I am not admitted to practice law in Pennsylvania, I believe only employers of seasonal farm-workers are required to provide breaks. These employers must give employees a 30-minute break after five hours of work, during which employees must be relieved of all duties. This time may be unpaid. All other Pennsylvania employers have no obligation to provide either meal or rest breaks to my knowledge but you should check with your State’s Dept of Labor or an employment lawyer in Pennsylvania to be certain.

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