Court ruling on worker meal and rest rules

Barran Liebman
Oregon Law Firm

A recent decision from the Washington Court of Appeals, Pellino v. Brink’s Inc., serves as a good reminder to employers everywhere about their obligation to provide employees with required meal and rest breaks.

The named plaintiff in this case worked for an armored car company. She and a group of other employees filed a class action against the company claiming that it failed to provide them with required meal and rest periods under Washington law. In Washington, an employee generally must be provided an unpaid meal period of at least 30 uninterrupted minutes for shifts exceeding five hours, as well as an unpaid ten-minute rest break for every four hours of work.

The company’s position was that the nature of armored car deliveries, during which the driver and crew must constantly secure the car and its contents, allowed little downtime for breaks. In lieu of providing meal and rest breaks, the company simply paid the drivers for a full day’s work (including time that would otherwise have been spent on meal and rest break periods) and allowed them to stop for meals and breaks as their delivery schedules allowed. The court found that the employees virtually never stopped making deliveries simply to take a break or eat a meal and were instead encouraged (for both business and security reasons) to “eat on the go” while they worked.

The Washington Court of Appeals agreed with the trial court that the company violated Washington’s meal and rest break laws and affirmed a verdict against the company for more than $2 million in back pay, accrued interest, and attorney fees. (The court calculated the back pay award using expert testimony regarding the number of missed or interrupted meal periods that the employees experienced.) The company’s principal argument was that because it paid the drivers to remain on duty regardless of whether they were on break or not, it satisfied its obligation to provide meal and rest breaks. Both the trial court and the appellate court rejected the argument, finding that the law’s purpose was to provide employees with relief from the workday and that “pay in lieu” of a break failed to satisfy that purpose. Indeed, if the 30-minute meal period is interrupted because the employee has to perform a task, Washington law requires that the employee be paid for the entire 30 minutes and the meal period be continued until the employee has received 30 minutes total of mealtime.

Meal and rest breaks are a common source of frustration for employers and employees alike. Employees often ask to be allowed to work through their lunches or breaks so they can leave early. By the same token, employers in time-sensitive or otherwise critical lines of business (like the armored car company in this case) feel pressure to get the work done, even if it means that employees don’t get their required meal or rest periods.

Every Washington or Oregon employer should have a meal and rest break policy that complies with applicable law. That policy must also be enforced, with employees who violate the policy or fail to take required breaks being subject to discipline. If the nature of your business makes compliance a challenge, consult an attorney about exceptions to meal and rest break requirements or other practical solutions.
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