In a recent decision (Brady v. Autozone Stores, Inc.), the Washington Supreme Court has clarified the employer’s obligations with respect to providing their employees with meal periods and establishing that a meal period was waived.
Prior to this decision, an employer could establish that it met its meal period obligations simply by showing it provided employees with a meaningful opportunity for a meal period. Now, due to the Court’s decision in Brady, Washington employers must ensure that their employees take their meal periods – UNLESS the employer can prove that the meal period was waived via a valid meal period waiver.
The Brady case is the typical wage and hour lawsuit where a group of employees filed a class action lawsuit claiming (among other things) that they and other employees were prevented from taking their meal periods. The case was filed in federal court.
The federal court denied class certification of the meal period claim – concluding that “employers have met their obligation under the law if they ensure that employees have the opportunity for a meaningful meal break, free from coercion or any other impediment” and rejecting the plaintiffs’ argument that employers are strictly liable whenever an employee misses a meal break.
As a result, the Washington Supreme Court was asked to clarify the law and answer two questions:
- Is an employer strictly liable under WAC 296-126-092* (Washington’s meal period statute)? and
- If an employer is not strictly liable under WAC 296-126-092, 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?
With respect to the first question, the Court found that employers are not strictly liable for an employee missing the meal period. Since an employee is permitted to waive the meal period at his/her choosing, the Court found that the employer cannot be held strictly liable for the missed meal period.
With respect to the second question, the Court found that Washington law provided greater protections to employees than simply obligating an employer to give its employees “meaningful opportunity” for a meal period. Instead, the Court found that an employee can prove his meal period claim by “providing evidence that he or she did not receive a timely meal break. The employer may then rebut this by showing that in fact no violation occurred or a valid waiver exists.”
Take home for Employers
This case sends an important message to employers regarding Washington meal periods. Employers can no longer assert that employees were provided with a meaningful opportunity to take a break and chose simply not to do so. Instead, employers must document an employee’s waiver of his/her meal period in writing (via a written meal period waiver). Absence of such a waiver could result in penalties being assessed against the employer.
* The Washington meal period statute provides as follows:
- 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. Meal periods shall be on the employer’s time when the employee is required by the employer to remain on duty on the premises or at a prescribed work site in the interest of the employer.
- No employee shall be required to work more than five consecutive hours without a meal period.
- Employees working three or more hours longer than a normal work day shall be allowed at least one thirty-minute meal period prior to or during the overtime period.