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Joint Employer Responsibility for Meal Periods

A recent decision from the California Court of Appeal explains how a staffing agency may satisfy its obligation to its employees to provide meal periods in accordance with the California wage orders. See Serrano v. Aerotek, Inc., Case No. A149187 (1st Dist. Ct. App. 3/9/2018).

Aerotek was a staffing agency that placed temporary employees with its clients. Its contract with the client stated that the client was responsible for the work environment, and the the client would comply with applicable federal, state and local laws. The client set the work schedules for the temporary employees, and managed their breaks. Aerotek had a handbook for temporary employees assigned to clients, which contained a meal period policy that complied with California law — that is, that employees were to be provided with an uninterrupted 30-minute off-duty meal break by the end of the fifth hour of work.

One of the temporary employees filed a class action complaint against Aerotek and the client, alleging that the client did not actually provide meal periods in accordance with the law. Aerotek had a manager at the client’s workplace, who declared that no Aerotek employee had ever complained to him that he or she had been from taking a meal period, even though Aerotek’s policy required them to notify Aerotek if they believed they were being prevented from taking meal breaks. In written discovery, the temporary employee conceded that she was unaware of any actions by Aerotek that prevented her from taking her meal periods.

Employers are not required to police meal breaks. They need only provide a reasonable opportunity for employees to take their breaks, and refrain from impeding or discouraging them from doing so. See Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court (2012) 53 Cal.4th 1004. Aerotek fulfilled that obligation by establishing a policy that followed California law, and by not interfering with the taking of meal breaks. Even if Aerotek was aware that its temporary employees were not actually taking meal periods by the end of their fifth hour of work, it would not violate the meal period requirement. It did not have to make sure that the employees actually took their meal periods. The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment to Aerotek.