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Unionized employers may benefit from new meal period legislation

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California’s meal period rules are a huge wellspring of employee lawsuits, especially the class action variety. While employers wait for clarification (and hopefully relief) from the Supreme Court in the pending Brinker case, the legislature and Governor Schwarzenegger have provided some help to a limited group of employers – construction, security firms, companies with commercial drivers, electric and gas companies, and publicly owned electric utilities.

Legislation going into effect on January 1, 2011 exempts employees in these companies (construction workers, security guards and truck drivers) from the meal period rules. The catch, however, is the exemption only applies if the employees are unionized. Currently, language in a union contract regarding meal periods does not take precedence over the meal period rules in the wage orders. Under this new legislation, employers in the covered industries can negotiate a contract with their union containing less stringent meal period rules. The contract must contain other provisions in order to qualify for the exemption, however, including wage rates at least 30% above the minimum wage.

The biggest benefit for exempted employers will be that disputes over meal periods will be deferred to arbitration, pursuant to their union contract. This will eliminate the risk of costly class action litigation and the one hour meal period penalty (unless written into the contract). Employers with union contracts expiring next year should make sure to insist on meal period language to take advantage of this legislation.

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