California Labor and Employment Defense Blog

Class Certification Is Proper Where Employer Never Paid Meal Period Premiums -- Safeway, Inc. v. Superior Court (Esparza)

The Labor Code and Wage Orders impose two separate obligations on employers: (a) to provide uninterrupted, 30-minute off-duty meal periods at specified time intervals; and (b) to pay one hour of compensation as a "premium wage" for each time that the employee was effectively prevented from actually taking such a compliant break. 

In the aftermath of Brinker v. Superior Court, courts have found that evaluating whether an employer has implemented an affirmative policy that fully complies with the first duty is well suited to a class-wide determination of liability.  But what if the employer has a perfect policy on paper but never actually pays any premium compensation under the policy? 

In Safeway Inc. v. Superior Court (Esparza), the court explained that such a uniform record of non-payment warrants class certification, at least where it is statistically implausible that such premium payments were never earned by class members.   

In granting class certification, the trial court stated: “[Real parties] prove[] that[] before June 17, 2007, Safeway did not pay meal break premiums. . . . Safeway does not contest this fact. Safeway had thousands or tens of thousands of workers, but for years it never paid statutory meal break premiums. Why? One explanation is human perfection: Safeway never, ever erred.” This explanation is possible. But human perfection is rare. Another explanation is deep, system-wide error: that Safeway was unaware of, or for some other reason[,] violated[] its duty to pay statutory premiums when required. [¶] This situation presents the central and predominating common issue: did Safeway’s system-wide failure to pay appropriate meal break premiums make it liable to the class during this period. This dominant common issue makes certification proper . . . .

The Safeway Court went on to explain that under this theory of liability -- i.e., a uniform practice of never paying appropriate meal premium pay -- it would not be necessary for the class to prove each instance of a meal break violation, to prove that "all or virtually all" of the class were owed compensation, or to prove the precise amount of premium pay owed.  

Rather, the class could use statistical analysis of time records and other data to establish that "on a system-wide basis, petitioners denied the class members the benefits of the the compensation guarantee [of] . . . section 226.7."  In particular, the "time punch data and records identified by [Plaintiff's expert] are capable of raising a rebuttable presumption that a significant portion of the missed, shortened and delayed meal breaks reflected meal break violations under section 226.7."

The lesson of Safeway is clear: It is not sufficient for an employer to merely implement a policy that effectively provides compliant meal breaks.  The employer must also record the timing and duration of the breaks, and then implement a separate good faith mechanism for determining whether a premium wage is actually due as a result of any missed breaks.  If the employer simply assumes 100% of the time that no wage is due this practice may expose it to class-wide liability.

 

 

 

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