On June 29, 2017, the Washington Supreme Court issued its decision in Brady v AutoZone Stores, Inc on how Washington’s meal breaks regulation should be applied.
In this case, the plaintiff, Michael Brady, filed a class action complaint seeking unpaid wages for missed meal breaks.
In Washington, the meal break regulations state that: “Employees shall be allowed a meal period of at least thirty minutes which commences no less than two hours nor more than five hours from the beginning of the shift.”
Typically, a business is not required to pay for meal periods if employees are free from any duties for the entire meal period. However, an employer is required to pay employees who are either required or allowed to remain on duty during any part of the meal period.
In Washington, an employee is allowed to waive his/her meal break if the employee prefers to work through it and the employer agree. While not required, best practice suggests employers obtain a written waiver from any employee who desires to waive his/her meal break.
After some legal procedural wrangling, Brady filed a motion asking the court to address the following two questions:
Is the employer strictly liable under WAC 296-126-092?
If an employer is not strictly liable under WAC 296-196-092, does the employee carry the burden to prove that his employer did not permit the employee an opportunity to take a meaningful break as required by WAC 296-126-092?
Let me translate. WAC 296-126-092 is Washington’s meal break regulation, which is partially quoted above. Brady was asking the court if an employee did not get his/her meal break, regardless of the reason, is an employer liable to pay the employee for the missed meal break.
In a definite win for employers, the court stated that the ability for an employee to waive his/her meal break means employers are not strictly liable if an employee misses his/her meal break.
However, there is, and always has been, a caveat to this rule. Employees must freely waive their meal breaks. This means the employee must have the opportunity for a meaningful meal break, free from an overt or subtle coercion from the employer.
As to the second question, Brady argued that employers have an affirmative duty to ensure their employees take their meal breaks. The court disagreed
Instead the court reaffirmed an employer is only obligated to provide a reasonable opportunity for an uninterrupted 30 minute meal break and must not undermine such opportunity by creating incentives to forgo, or otherwise encourage the skipping of a legally protected meal break.
Thus, if an employee claims a meal break violation the employee must provide some evidence that he/she did not receive a timely meal break. If the employee presents such evidence, then the employer can rebut this evidence either by showing that no violation occurred or that a valid waiver exists. Hence, the recommendation that employers get written waivers when an employee wants to voluntarily work into or through a meal break.
This is a very good decision for employers.
If you are interested in getting additional information about the rules regarding meal and rest breaks in Washington, the Department of Labor and Industries has a couple of well-reasoned administrative policies addressing meal and rest break rules for Washington employers.
My advice? All employers should comply with Washington’s meal and rest break regulations. For meal breaks this means providing those employees scheduled to work five or more hours in a work day with a reasonable opportunity for a 30 minute unpaid meal break. If the employee wants to voluntarily forgo the meal break, then the employer should get a written request (email will do) from the employee. Employers should maintain any approved requests for at least three years.
This column is not a substitute for legal advice in specific situations, as each situation needs to be addressed on a case-by-case basis. If you have questions regarding meal or rest breaks or for any other employment or labor law matter, I can be reached at either 509-662-1952 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Gil Sparks is Of Counsel with the law firm of Ogden Murphy Wallace and has been practicing management side employment and labor for over 29 years. While this article should not be considered legal advice, if you need legal advice, Gil can be reached at either email@example.com or 662-1954.