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Employees Win Victory in California Supreme Court Ruling on Meal and Rest Break Compensation

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Employees Win Victory in California Supreme Court Ruling on Meal and Rest Break Compensation

Employees Win Victory in California Supreme Court Ruling on Meal and Rest Break Compensation

California law provides non-exempt employees with meal and rest periods. If an employer does not provide compliant meal or rest periods, employees are entitled to “one additional hour of pay at the employee’s regular rate of compensation.” (Cal. Lab. Code Section 226.7(c).) But are forms of pay such as incentives or commissions included in this calculus, or is it limited to hourly pay? In a victory for employees, the California Supreme Court decided earlier this month that other non-discretionary pay must be included in calculating an employee’s regular rate.

The case was filed by Jessica Ferra, a former bartender at the Loews Hollywood Hotel. Ferra claimed Loews had underpaid her and a class of similarly-situated employees for non-compliant meal and rest breaks because she and the other class members’ incentive payments were excluded from the calculation of missed breaks premiums. These payments were part of the pay Ferra expected and Loews promised, so Ferra contended that they should be factored into the formula for the “regular rate of compensation” used to calculate missed break premiums. In Ferra v. Loews Hollywood Hotel, LLC (2021) No. S259172, the California Supreme Court agreed.

“Regular rate of compensation” versus “regular rate of pay”

The decision came down to whether the “regular rate of compensation” for meal and rest break premiums is calculated the same way as is the “regular rate of pay” for overtime purposes. Loews contended that the calculations were different because the legal phrases were different, arguing that when the legislature uses different terms, it intends their meaning to differ. The court was not persuaded, noting that “compensation” and “pay” are synonyms. Regardless, the key phrase was “regular rate,” which applies to the calculations for both overtime and meal and rest break premiums. The court reasoned that the “regular rate” calculation follows that of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), looking to California case law and legislative history. Therefore, the “regular rate of pay” under California law must follow the same method of calculation as the “regular rate” in the FLSA, both for overtime calculations and for meal and rest break premium calculations. The court further opined that even if “compensation” and “pay” had different meanings in a relevant way, compensation covers a broader range of employment benefits than pay, such as wages, commissions, medical benefits, and other benefits.

Retroactive application

Sweetening the victory for employees, the Court determined that its decision applies retroactively to violations that came before the July 15 decision. The Court reasoned that its ruling rested on statutory interpretation, which merely clarifies a statute’s meaning, rather than setting forth new law. The Court rejected Loews’s misguided argument that this decision would put employers on the hook for millions of dollars, pointing out that “it is not clear why we should favor the interest of employers in avoiding ‘millions’ in liability over the interest of employees in obtaining the ‘millions’ owed to them under the law.” Consequently, employees may have a legal claim for non-compliant meal and rest break premiums, even if they were denied compensation before Ferra was decided.

If you believe you have been wrongly denied meal or rest breaks or premiums paid at the correct rate of pay, please contact Bryan Schwartz Law here.

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