California has a long history of liberal and progressive politics, particularly when it comes to protecting the rights of employees. And while the state legislature has passed a wide range of laws meant to protect employees, the California Supreme Court has also played a significant role in the development of many employee-friendly policies that California employees often take for granted.
So, a recent ruling from the state’s high court comes as something of a surprise, whether you agree with the ruling or not. The Court held that California employment law does not require employers to make sure that employees actually take the breaks to which they are legally entitled.
It’s important to note that the right of all employees in California to take at least a 30-minute meal break during a standard shift, and their right to two 10-minute breaks for every four hours worked, has not been affected. If an employer were to try and stop an employee from taking their legally-mandated breaks, there would be trouble.
What the state Supreme Court did here was resolve a question that, until now, created some uncertainty for employers. The law was not clear on whether or not employers had to actually order their employees to take the breaks to which they are entitled.
In its ruling, the court essentially says that, while employers are required to offer a minimum amount of break time to their employees, the law cannot dictate what the employees actually do with that time, and if they choose to spend it working, that is their right.
I’m of two minds about this decision. On one hand, I think it leaves the door wide open for abuse, especially of employees who don’t know much about their rights under California employment law. An employer could simply “forget” to inform his or her employees that they’re entitled to breaks, and if they eventually get sued for failing to offer their employees break time, they could simply claim that the employees chose to work through their breaks. And in many cases, it would be difficult to prove otherwise.
Groups that advocate for strong protections for workers are understandably concerned that this ruling could turn into an easily-exploitable loophole in California’s worker protection laws, which are otherwise some of the strongest in the country.
On the other hand, I recognize that it would be impractical for the law to micromanage the behavior of employees on their breaks, and while the law should protect employees, ensuring that they are paid at least a minimum wage, that they have a reasonably safe work environment, and that they have breaks to ensure that they don’t become overly fatigued on the job. All of these protections tend to be good for both employees and employers in the long run. The benefits for the employees are obvious. But for the employers, having healthy employees who aren’t fatigued because they’ve been working non-stop for 10 hours can actually save them money, mostly by reducing the rate at which accidents occur, thereby reducing workers’ compensation expenses.
However, the law cannot accomplish these goals by micromanaging every little detail of how employers implement them. Doing so would be expensive, impractical, and would probably bury employers and employees in unnecessary bureaucracy.
So, how do I feel about the California Supreme Court’s ruling in this case? Honestly, I doubt it will change much for the vast majority of employees. The fact is, the majority of employers in California make a good-faith effort to comply with federal and state employment law, and probably took steps to ensure that their workers took the breaks to which they are legally-entitled.
And it’s important to note that if this ruling has a significant negative impact, with abuses taking place at a much higher rate than expected, the state legislature can always update the law to overrule the Supreme Court on this issue.
After all, in this case, the court was simply interpreting the law passed by the state legislature. If this ruling has unintended effects, or the legislature believes that the court made the wrong decision, they can simply change the law to make it clear that employers are, in fact, required to ensure that their employees actually take their breaks.
However, I doubt that this will prove necessary.
As I said, I think that most employers will not change their practices in response to this ruling.
As long as employers are clear that this ruling does absolutely nothing to compromise the rights of their employees to take breaks, and are certain to inform their employees that they have a right to take breaks, and do not try to stop them from doing so, things should be fine.