• California Meal Period Law Has Returned to State of Confusion -- Employers Beware"
  • February 6, 2006
  • Law Firm: Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, LLP - Los Angeles Office
  • Recent actions by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's office and the California Courts of Appeal are creating widespread uncertainty regarding employers' obligations to provide meal and rest periods.

    (1) Issue One: The Governor's Office Abandons Proposed Regulations Clarifying Employers' Obligations To Provide Meal Periods.

    The statute governing meal periods states that an employer meets its statutory duty by "providing" the meal period. Cal. Lab. Code ยง 512(a). Nonetheless, the Industrial Welfare Commission ("IWC"), the now defunded state agency that issues orders governing wages, hours, and working conditions, interpreted the statute to require employers to compel employees to take their meal periods, regardless of whether the employee wants to.

    In an effort to clarify California employers' obligations regarding meal periods, the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement issued proposed emergency regulations concerning meal and rest periods in December 2004. The proposed regulations permitted employees to waive their meal periods, as long as the employer made meal periods available and gave employees an opportunity to take them. The proposed regulations also allowed an employee's initial meal period to begin after the sixth hour of employment, rather than the fifth, and limited the time period for which employees could collect penalties for missed meal periods to one year.

    The proposed regulations were subject to a public Hearing and Comment period for over a year. While the business community lobbied for the proposed regulations, labor groups mounted strong opposition and threatened lawsuits if the regulations went into effect.

    On January 13, 2006, the Governor's office abandoned the proposed regulations, deeming the rulemaking process for these regulations "too adversarial." The Governor plans to start over with the rulemaking process, trying a new approach involving more discussion with both business and labor organizations. Regulators plan on rewriting the proposed regulations at an unspecified future date after these discussions have taken place.

    Now that the proposed regulations have been withdrawn, it is unclear whether employers must merely provide a meal period and give employees an opportunity to take it or whether employers must force employees to take their meal period. Plaintiffs' attorneys side with the IWC's statutory interpretation and argue that employers must require employees to actually take a meal period. Defense attorneys point to the language of the statute and argue that employers are obligated only to "provide" a meal period and an opportunity for employees to take it.

    What should employers do?

    (2) Issue Two: The California Courts of Appeal Split Regarding Whether There Is a One-Year or Three-Year Statute of Limitations on Penalties for Failing to Provide Meal Periods.

    In late 2005, the California Court of Appeal appeared to have settled the issue of the applicable statute of limitations for penalties for missed meal periods. On November 23, 2005, in , a case handled by Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, LLP and on December 2, 2005, in Murphy v. Kenneth Cole Productions, Inc., the Courts of Appeal for the First and Second Appellate Districts (for Los Angeles and San Francisco Counties) found that the penalty for failing to provide meal periods is subject to a one-year statute of limitations. Murphy v. Kenneth Cole Productions, Inc., 134 Cal. App. 4th 728, 753 (2005); Caliber Bodyworks, Inc., et al. v. Super. Ct. (Herrera, et al.), 134 Cal. App. 4th 365, 381 (2005). On January 20, 2006, the Fourth Appellate District (San Diego County) found that the penalty was subject to a three-year statute of limitations, without making any reference to the prior cases reaching the opposite conclusion. National Steel and Shipbuilding Co. v. Sup. Ct. (Godinez, et al.), 2006 WL 147520 (Cal. App. 4 Dist.). Then, on January 27, 2006, in Mills v. Super. Ct. (Bed, Bath & Beyond, Inc.), 2006 WL 198588 (Cal. App. 2 Dist.), the Second Appellate District held that the penalty was subject to a one-year statute of limitations, citing Caliber and Murphy in support.

    This split between the Appellate Districts makes it likely that the California Supreme Court will ultimately be called upon to determine the applicable statute of limitations. Which will it be?