With a $20 billion deficit and an unemployment rate of more than 12 percent, the State of California should be doing everything it can to help businesses and their employees thrive. Unfortunately, one California law that virtually everyone agrees should be changed to allow common-sense flexibility has fallen victim to politics, contributing to the state’s high unemployment and holding back expansion.
As the law currently stands, California employers are required to give their employees one 30-minute, off-duty meal break per shift. While that sounds fair and simple, and in many cases it is, in practice some distortions of this meal break law lead to frivolous lawsuits that hurt employers and do nothing to help employees.
The problems arise because, for some industries, allowing employees to take an “off-duty” break is not a practical option. In the case of my industry, the private security field, it could become a real threat to public safety and homeland security. For example, under the current law, private security companies are required to allow their security officers to leave their posts unattended while they take their off-duty meal periods. This results in an open window of time that the site is unprotected and clearly invites criminal activity.
This is unacceptable in a post 9/11 world, where security officers are increasingly being called upon to protect some of California’s most critical infrastructure sites including oil refineries, chemical plants and energy facilities. In many cases, simply the presence of a security officer acts as crime deterrent.
While the law technically allows for employers and employees to negotiate for “on-duty” meal breaks in cases like this, lack of clarity in the law, as it often does, becomes an invitation for abuse by trial lawyers who thrive on such uncertainty. These trial attorneys have discovered how to manipulate this law and have taken to filing class-action lawsuits against employers over alleged meal-break violations. California businesses are unnecessarily spending millions of dollars in lawyer fees and settlements of threatened lawsuits each year.
This money could be better spent giving employees raises and hiring additional employees. In some cases, it makes the difference on whether a company can stay in business at all.
Fortunately, a new piece of legislation, if signed by the governor, will change the current law to provide some much-needed clarity to this section of the law to prevent unnecessary and frivolous lawsuits.
AB 569 by Senator Bill Emmerson will give greater legal clarity to employers and their employees that are covered under a valid collective bargaining agreement the option of foregoing a meal period by mutual consent, and staying on the clock and being paid for an “on-duty” meal period. This is a win-win for several reasons. Most employees say they prefer on-duty meal periods because they get paid for 8 hours of work, rather than 7½ hours of pay in an 8-hour shift. It will help prevent trial attorneys from filing lawsuits that prey on uncertain definitions in existing law. And it allows employers who currently spend millions on legal fees and settlements to put that money to work hiring and retaining employees instead.
Allowing greater flexibility in how on-duty meal periods are administered will not only benefit private security, but other industries as well, including commercial drivers; construction operations; electrical and gas corporations; local publicly owned utilities and more.
We urge the governor to sign AB 569. It’s good for both employers and employees and is a sensible first step to achieving more comprehensive reform. As the governor’s time in office winds down, this is one last step he can take to help employers and employees. The clock is ticking, Governor, please sign AB 569.