Court's decision a tough break for senior living employers

John O'Connor
John O'Connor

California's highest court has offered clarification on employee-break requirements. But this is hardly a limited dispute. In fact, the largely unfavorable ruling just might have implications for senior living operators nationwide.

In reversing an appellate court's decision, the Supreme Court determined that employers must give workers at least 10 minutes of work-free rest breaks every four hours — no strings attached.

“During rest periods employers must relieve employees of all duties and relinquish control over how employees spend their time, Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar wrote for the majority.

He added that requiring employees to remain “on call” at such times gives managers “a broad and intrusive degree of control.” Such interference can prevent employees on break from doing things like taking walks, making phone calls or even pumping breast milk for an infant.

In other words, a break truly needs to be a break.

There is a bit of a caveat, however. Employers may reschedule rest periods should special needs (like a falling resident) arise. California's labor law also lets employers seek an exemption if mandatory breaks would cause an “undue hardship.” That could potentially create more problems, however, as the application could trigger an investigation of the company's break practices.

As to why operators located outside California should pay attention, three reasons come immediately to mind.

First, this ruling sets a legal precedent that potentially could be used against operators in other states.

Second, there are potential ethical concerns involved. Operators who market themselves as caring organizations but require employees to work through breaks might be accused of being, shall we say, inconsistent?

If those two reasons aren't compelling enough, there's this: shortchanging your workers might create a massive financial liability. But don't take my word for it. Just ask ABM Security Services. Because they were on the south end of the 5-2 ruling, they are now on the hook for $90 million in damages. All because they required their security to keep pagers and cell phones turned on during breaks.

So this might be a good time to have counsel review your organization's policies related to meal times and rest breaks. Conversely, you could do nothing and hope for the best. As for operators choosing the second option: don't be shocked if there is an unlucky break in your future.

John O'Connor is editorial director of McKnight's Senior Living. Email him at john.oconnor@mcknights.com.

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