During Rest Breaks Employees Can Be Required to Do "Noun" Work, But Not "Verb" Work -- Augustus v. ABM Security Services, Inc.
In Augustus v. ABM Security Services, Inc., the Second District Court of Appeal was called upon to decide whether time spent "on-call" by security guards (i.e., time spent on premises with a duty to respond to all radio calls) constituted a legitimate "rest period."
California law requires minimum compensation for all "hours worked." However, it also requires paid rest periods during which an employee "shall not be required to work." And just weeks earlier the California Supreme Court held in Mendiola v. CPS Security, Inc., that this exact type of "on-call" time by security guards was compensable "work."
So one would be excused for thinking the decision in Augustus should be an easy call. After all, if the same time has already been held to be "work," it can't also be a period of rest which is free from "work." Right?
It turns out one can never underestimate the law's ability to find a linguistic distinction -- even if it's a distinction within the same word. Thus, the Augustus court explained that the crucial distinction for purposes of providing a rest break is whether an employee's required activities are work "as a noun" or work "as a verb."
The word “work” is used as both a noun and verb in Wage Order No. 4, which defines “Hours worked” as “the time during which an employee is subject to the control of an employer, and includes all the time the employee is suffered or permitted to work, whether or not required to do so.” (Cal. Code Regs., tit. 8, § 11040, subd. 2(K).) In this definition, “work” as a noun means “employment”—time during which an employee is subject to an employer's control. “Work” as a verb means “exertion”—activities an employer may suffer or permit an employee to perform. (See Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad Co. v. Muscoda Local No. 123 (1944) 321 U.S. 590, 598, 64 S.Ct. 698, 88 L.Ed. 949 [work is “physical or mental exertion (whether burdensome or not) controlled or required by the employer and pursued necessarily and primarily for the benefit of the employer and his business”].) Section 226.7, which as noted provides that “[a]n employer shall not require an employee to work during a meal or rest or recovery period,” uses “work” as an infinitive verb contraposed with “rest.” It is evident, therefore, that “work” in that section means exertion on an employer's behalf.
As the court explained "Not all employees at work actually perform work." Employing this analysis, the court suggested there may be no need to provide distinct rest breaks to security guards as their jobs are "indistinguishable" from one long rest break anyway.
The Augustus Court's distinction between "noun work" and "verb work" is novel and is based on little more than the court's assertion that "it is evident" that this is what the Legislature must have intended. Moreover, it may be a problematic distinction to apply in practice as most employees inevitably have short periods during the day when they are not engaged in actual "exertion."
For example, under Augustus a cashier who waits more than ten minutes before a new customer comes into a store has apparently had a legal rest break whether she knew it or not. And an employer can apparently provide a legally compliant rest break by merely requiring its employees to stand motionless for 10-minutes. I am not sure this is really what the Legislature had in mind for a bona fide rest period.