California high court says health care workers working 12-hour shifts can waive a second meal break

By Karen Kidd | Jan 2, 2019

SAN FRANCISCO – The California Supreme Court recently found that health care workers in the state who do not want to take a second meal break during shifts that exceed 12 hours aren't legally bound to do so.

In its 20-page opinion handed down Dec. 10 in Gerard et al v. Orange Coast Memorial Medical Center, the state's highest court affirmed a First District Appeals Court ruling that the Industrial Welfare Commission doesn't violate the state's labor code when it allows the meal break waivers.

"Considering the relevant statutory and regulatory provisions in light of their history, we agree with the court of appeal that the IWC order does not violate the Labor Code," the opinion said.

Justice Goodwin H. Liu wrote the high court's opinion in which Chief Justice Tani Gorre Cantil-Sakauye and Justices Carol A. Corrigan, Ming W. Chin, Mariano-Florentino Cuellar, Leondra R. Kruger and First District Court of Appeal Associate Justice Peter Siggins concurred. Siggins had been assigned to the case by Cantil-Sakauye.

The state's labor code generally provides employees who work more than five hours must be allowed a 30-minute meal period. Employees working more than 10 hours in a shift are entitled to a second 30-minute meal period.

The defendant in the long running case, Orange Coast Memorial Medical Center, had been allowing employees working shifts longer than 12 hours to waive the second meal period. Plaintiffs in the case, former Orange Coast health care workers Jazmina Gerard, Kristiane McElroy and Jeffrey Carl, had waived their second meal periods.

"Plaintiffs alleged they signed second meal period waivers and occasionally worked shifts longer than 12 hours without being provided a second meal period," the background portion of the opinion said. "Plaintiffs contended that these second meal period waivers violated the labor code, and they sought penalties, unpaid wages, and injunctive relief for those and other violations."

Orange Coast countered the meal period waivers conformed with the IWC's wage order and moved for summary judgment, claiming no disputed issue of material fact existed because the plaintiffs were provided legally required meal breaks periods. The Orange County Superior Court granted Orange Coast's motion for summary judgment and subsequently denied class certification.

The First District Court of Appeal initially reversed the trial court's ruling, holding that while the waivers conformed with the wage order, the wage order itself violated the labor code's prohibition on waiters for employees working shifts longer than 12 hours.

"We granted the hospital's petition for review and transferred the case to the court of appeal with directions to consider recently enacted legislation that was potentially pertinent to the case," the opinion said. "The court of appeal subsequently reversed course and affirmed the trial court's rulings in favor of the hospital."

The Supreme Court then granted the plaintiffs' petition for review.

In affirming the appeal court's more recent judgment, the Supreme Court noted that since 2000, the California Legislature has amended the labor code several times to exempt certain classes of employees covered by collective bargaining agreements. Those exemptions included prohibiting second meal periods waivers for employees working more than 12 hours for classes of employees such as bakery workers, motion picture or broadcast workers and certain types of construction, commercial driving, security officers and utility employees.

"Thus, although the legislature has determined that waiver of a second meal period for employees working more than eight hours is generally contrary to public policy, it has not applied that rule inflexibly to all categories of employees," the opinion said. "This is consistent with our conclusion that the legislature, in prospectively requiring IWC wage orders to be consistent with section 512(a), did not intend to disturb the extant exemption for health care workers based on the IWC’s determination that the exemption promoted the health and welfare of those workers."

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