November 26th, 2019
Jean Ohman Back and Tom Payne at Schwabe
On Thursday, November 14, 2019, the Oregon Court of Appeals released its decision in Maza v. Waterford Operations, LLC, 300 Or App 471 (2019), that clarified Oregon employers’ obligation to ensure that non-exempt employees take required meal breaks. Although this clarification may seem technical, it has important ramifications for Oregon employers to avoid potentially substantial liability.
The Court’s opinion held that, in the absence of a meal period waiver available to food and beverage workers, Oregon employers must provide employees who work between six and eight hours in a day with one continuous 30-minute meal period in which the employee is relieved of all duties, and the employer must pay for the entire 30-minute period if the employee works any portion of the 30-minute period. The Court further held that “it is not sufficient for employers to merely require in a handbook that employees not work during meal periods; it is the employer’s duty to monitor employees’ work and meal periods to ensure that full meal periods are taken.” Id. at 480.
In Maza, hourly employees who worked for Waterford Operations, LLC and Coos Bay Rehabilitation, LLC, brought a class action wage claim alleging that they are owed wages and penalty wages under OAR 839-020-0050(2)(b) (the “Rule”) for shortened meal periods when they worked some portion of their 30-minute lunch period. The trial court agreed with defendants that the plaintiffs’ claims did not include common questions of law and fact (and therefore could not be brought as a class action) because each plaintiff’s claim was fact dependent on whether the employee was forced to return to work prior to completing their lunch period. Plaintiffs appealed that issue to the Court of Appeals arguing the issue was not fact dependent because the Rule required employers to pay for the entire 30 minutes regardless of the reason for the shortened meal period.
The question for the Court’s review was the interpretation of the Rule, and specifically, whether an employer must ensure that employees take their full 30-minute meal period. The defendants argued that they met their duty under the Rule, pointing to written policies in their employee handbook that offered an uninterrupted meal period and that required employees to notify their manager or human resources department if they did not receive their meal period. Defendants argued that they did not have a duty to enforce the use of the full 30-minute break. Plaintiffs, on the other hand, argued that it was not enough to authorize a meal period—employers must actually require employees to take the full 30-minute period, and the employer must pay for the full 30 minutes if the employee for whatever reason works for any portion of the meal period.
The Court reviewed the language of the Rule and other provisions that allowed for voluntary waiver by food and beverage workers, and determined that the separate waiver provision would not have been necessary if employees could voluntarily choose to skip their meal periods. The Court found that allowing employees to skip meal periods would defeat the purpose of the meal period law, which was to preserve the health of employees. Given that employers have authority over the workplace, the Court found that employers “are in a unique position to enforce mandatory meal periods necessary for the preservation of the health of employees.” Id. at 479.
As a result, Oregon employers should review their meal period procedures and require employees to take an uninterrupted 30-minute meal period. The onus is on the employer to prove that employees took their meal period. Therefore, employers should look into mechanisms that will allow them to establish that an employee actually took a lunch break. As is evident by the Maza decision, requiring employees to notify their supervisor or human resources department is not enough. There are a number of ways that you can address this case in your workplace. Please contact your employment counsel if you have questions about managing meal-break compliance with your employees.