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Court Rules on Wage and Hour Claim by CA Farm Laborers

Employers in California are required to follow the wage and hour laws of the state and federal governments. When the state laws are more generous to workers in the state, employers must follow them. Workers must be given rest breaks every four hours during their shifts, and these breaks must be paid. In Sanchez v. Martinez, Cal. Ct. App. Case No. C083268, the court considered whether the plaintiffs were entitled to recover both the minimum wage for the actual unpaid hours and an additional hour of pay under separate theories of recovery.

Factual and Procedural Background

Seven farm laborers filed a lawsuit against their employer, Miguel A. Martinez, in Oct. 2009. The plaintiffs alleged that Martinez had violated multiple labor laws when they worked at a piece rate pruning grapevines in Jan. 2009. In May 2013, the plaintiffs filed an amended complaint to list additional labor law violations that allegedly occurred during 2009 through 2011 and to add more plaintiffs.

The case went to a bench trial in Feb. 2014. After the plaintiffs rested their case in chief, Martinez moved for judgment. The trial court granted the motion for judgment in favor of Martinez for six plaintiffs who did not appear in court and testify. It also granted a motion for judgment in favor of Martinez for three other plaintiffs that the court found had not been employed by Martinez. After the rest of the evidence was presented, the court found in favor of Martinez on all of the remaining counts.

The plaintiffs appealed the trial court's judgment. The appeals court rejected most of the plaintiffs' claims. However, it reversed a few others, including a claim that the plaintiffs had not been paid for rest breaks. The court said that Martinez should have paid the plaintiffs for their required rest breaks, which should have occurred every four hours of work. The appeals court returned the case to the trial court to calculate damages and penalties that Martinez should pay to the plaintiffs.

After the trial court calculated the damages and penalties against Martinez, the trial court ordered that Martinez should pay damages of $416 and civil penalties of $17,775. The plaintiffs appealed the court's calculation, and Martinez cross-appealed.

Issue: Whether Employers Must Pay Either the Minimum Wage for Unpaid Rest Breaks, the Premium Wage Rate, or Both?

The plaintiffs argued that the trial court erred because it said that plaintiffs could only recover damages for an additional hour of pay for the days that they were not paid for their rest breaks. They argued that they should be able to recover both an additional hour of pay as well as at least the minimum wage for the actual time that they were unpaid. Martinez argued that the court calculated the rest breaks incorrectly because it failed to consider whether the plaintiffs worked through the breaks.

Rule: Employees Who Are Not Paid for Rest Breaks Are Entitled to Recover at Least the Minimum Wage for Their Unpaid Time or an Additional Hour of Pay for Each Violation

Under the former Cal. Labor Code § 226.7, employees who are not paid for rest breaks are entitled to an additional hour of pay at the employees' regular hourly rates for each day that they did not receive rest breaks.[2] Under Bluford v. Safeway Corp., 216 Cal.App.4th 864 (2013), workers who work at a piece-rate are entitled to recover at least the minimum wage for all of their unpaid time.[3] The plaintiffs argued that they should be entitled to recover at least the minimum wage for their unpaid rest breaks and the additional hour of pay at their regular pay rates for each date of the violation.

Analysis

In California, the wage and hour laws are very complex. Employers must comply with the state and federal minimum wage laws, including paying workers for the time that they spend during mandatory rest breaks during their shifts.[4]

The court began by reviewing the plaintiffs' arguments. They first considered the plaintiffs' contentions that they were entitled to the minimum wage as piece-rate workers who were not paid for their rest breaks under the court's decision in Bluford. The trial court had stated that the plaintiffs were limited to recovering the additional hourly rate under former Labor Code § 226.7 and were not entitled to recover the minimum wage for the actual time that they were not paid. The appeals court disagreed and found that plaintiffs were entitled to recover the minimum wage for their actual hours spent in unpaid rest breaks. In Bluford , the court held that piece-rate workers must be compensated for unpaid rest breaks at either the contracted hourly rate or the minimum wage. A wage order issued by the California Industrial Relations Commission for the mercantile industry stated that rest breaks are considered to be a part of the hours worked and must be paid. While the farm laborers did not work in the mercantile industry, another wage order applied a similar rule for agricultural workers.

The court disagreed with the trial court's statement that plaintiffs could not seek the minimum wage for the actual hours for which they were unpaid. The trial court based its decision on a comment in a California Supreme Court case in which the court stated that workers who were forced to work through rest breaks were limited to recovering damages under § 226.7. The appeals court distinguished that case because it dealt with workers who were forced to work through unpaid rest periods while the farm laborers were unpaid during authorized rest breaks.

The court then looked at § 226.7. Under that statute at the time when the plaintiffs' injuries arose, the statute provided that piece-rate workers who were not compensated for rest breaks could recover a premium wage equal to their regular hourly rates of pay. The court agreed with the plaintiffs that § 226.7 provided a second avenue of recovery and that both avenues were valid.

However, the plaintiffs sought a double recovery for their unpaid rest periods. They wanted to recover the minimum wage for the actual time that they were unpaid during rest breaks under Bluford and to recover the premium hour pay under § 226.7. The court found that they were not entitled to recover damages under both theories of recovery for the same harm. The court explained that under Tavaglione v. Billings, 4 Cal.4th 1150 (1993), the California Supreme Court had adopted a rule that prevents a double recovery for the same injury.[5]

The court then considered Martinez's argument that the court erred by not considering whether the workers had worked through their rest periods. The appeals court pointed out that was an irrelevant argument because even if they did, they were not paid for their time.

Conclusion

The court affirmed the trial court's calculation of damages and civil penalties. Both parties were ordered to pay for their costs on appeal.

Get Help From an Experienced Wage and Hour Attorney

If you believe that your employer may have violated the wage and hour laws, getting help from an experienced wage and hour lawyer is important for understanding your rights. An attorney can help you to understand the complex rules and laws that might apply to your situation. Contact the law firm of Steven M. Sweat A.P.C. to schedule a free consultation by calling us at 866-966-5240.

Sources

[1] Sanchez v. Martinez

[2] Excerpts fom the labor code

[3] Bluford v. Safeway Stores Inc

[4] Wage and Hour Claims

[5] Tavaglione v. Billings

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