Augustus v. ABM Security Services: On Duty Rest Breaks Rejected

In the midst of the holidays, the California Supreme Court issued a decision in Augustus v. ABM Security Services, Inc. stating that the law does not allow employers to require their employees to utilize on-duty or on-call rest breaks. The impact of this decision will likely impact thousands of California employment centers with similar policies, particularly in security, hospitality, and retail industries.

California’s Industrial Welfare Commission’s industry-specific Wage Orders require employers in the state to allow non-exempt employees to take a 10 minute rest break for each four hour work period. The law also indicates specifically that the 10 minutes should be consecutive and that, when possible, the break should occur in the middle of the shift. In Augustus v. ABM Security Services, Inc. the question was whether or not this requirement was fulfilled if the “rest break” was on-duty or on-call.

This particular case was based on plaintiffs’ complaints that they were non-exempt security guards working for the company, ABM Security Services, Inc. (ABM) at a variety of work sites (i.e. residential, commercial, retail, office, industrial, etc.) throughout the state of California, and their principal duties providing immediate response to emergency and/or life threatening situations and physical security on site required that they keep their pagers and radios on. There was no exception to the rule for rest breaks. As part of their job duties, security guards were required to keep pagers and radios on during rest breaks and stay vigilant and respond to any calls that occurred regardless of their rest break schedule.

ABM’s policy was based on the urgency or time-sensitive nature of some of the clients’ needs pertaining to the on site security guards in a number of different circumstances. Some such situations included: building tenant who wanted a security escort to the parking lot, the manager of a building that needed notification of a mechanical issue on site, and various “emergencies.”

Security guards working for ABM saw this as a violation of labor law and filed suit complaining that ABM failed to provide employees with compliant rest breaks. The plaintiffs were granted summary judgment and awarded approximately $90 million by the trial court, but the Court of Appeal reversed the decision.

The case presented two issues to be considered by the Supreme Court:

1.     Are employers required to allow employees to take “off-duty” rest breaks?

2.     Can employers require employees to remain “on-call” during rest breaks?

After considering the issue, the California Supreme Court came to a decision. They first noted that California law did not explicitly require employers to provide “off-duty” rest breaks, but they also took into consideration the plain meaning of the word “rest” and other language included in the Wage Order and Labor Code. When they concluded that rest breaks need to be off-duty they noted that California Labor Code section 226.7 prohibits employers from requiring any employee to work during any meal or rest period and that the relevant Wage Order’s wording indicated that rest breaks needed to be considered time worked. The court decided that the language indicating that “rest breaks” be counted as “work time” would not be necessary unless it was the intention of the law for rest breaks to be off-duty. ABM attempted to sway the court’s decision in their favor by pointing to language in the Wage Order discussing the possibility for employers (on rare occasion) to require employees to take on-duty meal breaks. Their argument did not hold as the Court’s opinion was that the absence of language authorizing the same for on-duty rest breaks was more telling than the existence of the exception made for meal breaks. The Court held that rest breaks must be off-duty.

The Court also had to consider whether employers could comply with requirements to provide employees with breaks while also keeping them “on call” during the break. ABM argued that there was a difference between an employer requiring that an employee keep working throughout their rest break and an employer requiring that the employee remain on call. The Court did not agree and noted that the practical realities of a 10-minute rest period must be considered. The time limitation alone already restricted the employees’ options regarding what they could do on break. The Court felt any additional limitations (i.e. requirements for pagers or phones or availability on site, etc.) were not in accordance with the intention of the law to offer employees a small period of “freedom” from the job for rest and to use for their own purposes. Based on these arguments, the Court held that on-call rest breaks were not compliant with the law. 

The Augustus decision will have a significant impact on California employers who utilize on-duty or on-call rest breaks in order to maximize staff productivity and accommodate single-employee shifts. Employers who are unable to comply with the rest break requirement to relieve employees of all duties may have to pay rest break premiums as an alternative. If you have questions regarding how the Augustus decision could affect you, please get in touch with the experienced southern California employment law attorneys at Blumenthal, Nordrehaug & Bhowmik.