California law mandates meal periods be provided to non-exempt workers, as set forth in Labor Code section 512. However, the Labor Code provides the Industrial Welfare Commission (“IWC”) the power to create certain “Wage Orders” to adopt or amend working condition laws, including the power to exempt certain employees from various Labor Code requirements.
Notwithstanding this authority given to the IWC, a California court recently ruled the IWC exceeded its authority by exempting certain unionized employees covered by Wage Order 16 from the meal period requirements set forth in Labor Code section 512. In Lazarin v. Superior Court (Total Western, Inc.), three union-represented workers sued their former employer on behalf of themselves and a putative class of non-exempt hourly employees, alleging in part that the employer failed to provide meal periods in the manner required by Labor Code Section 512 and section 10(B) of Wage Order 16. Citing language in the Wage Order, the employer argued that Wage Order 16 specifically exempted employees subject to a collective bargaining agreement from the meal break requirements. The court disagreed, holding not that the employer misinterpreted the Wage Order but that the IWC had overstepped its regulatory authority by providing an exemption from Labor Code section 512’s mandate for the non-exempt hourly unionized workers.
Although the Lazarin case deals only with the issue of union employees covered by Wage Order 16, it is another example of an unhelpful meal period interpretation for California employers, who are already struggling with compliance with California’s rigid meal break laws in a climate plagued by endless litigation on the subject. As many employers are aware, the courts cannot even agree on what it means to “provide” a meal period. This important issue has fueled numerous class action lawsuits and is currently before the California Supreme Court. That uncertainty, and now the further uncertainty exemplified by the Lazarin ruling, underscores the need for legislation to be passed clarifying California’s meal period requirements. Given that efforts to pass such legislation have almost all failed thus far, California employers have to make sure that their managers and supervisors are enforcing the ten minute rest breaks and lunch periods.