SAN FRANCISCO (Legal Newsline) – An ABM Security Services employee has kicked off the new year with a major $90 million win against the company after the California Supreme Court ruled in her favor on Dec. 22 in a lawsuit concerning the definition of a rest break in California.

Jennifer Augustus sued ABM Security Services in 2005 after the company required guards to “keep their pagers and radio phones on,” “remain vigilant,” and be “responsive to calls when needs arose” during their rest break periods.

Augustus and other employees accused the company of failing to “provide the rest periods that state law entitles employees to receive,” according to court documents. There was an issue of whether those duties actually consisted of working during what was meant to be rest breaks, but the court ultimately sided with the employees in a 5-2 majority.

“The court’s ruling essentially found that a break must be a break,” Emily Knoles, an associate with Polsinelli PC law firm told Legal Newsline, referencing the Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court (2012) case in which a court decided that meal and rest breaks requirements should be aligned. “The decision does not go so far as to define what can and cannot always be a break, but did find that requiring to respond to inquiries while on break means that the break did not occur.”

Considering the $90 million price tag of the ruling, California employers have been advised on how to move forward to prevent facing a similar lawsuit. Knoles advised employers in the National Law Review to first take a look at their handbooks and make sure their rest break policies and regulations align with the law.

They were also instructed to guarantee that workers are relived of all of their responsibilities and should even clock out during their rest periods. Managers and supervisors were also consulted to not “disturb” employees during their rest time and to stop on-call responsibilities during the rest period. This can also help employees know their rights when it comes to rest breaks.

“Rest break cases are filed almost every day,” Knoles said. “They are very common in California. This will play a role in the litigious nature of these cases as historically there has been some confusion about the nature of company duties in the provision of rest breaks. Now with this guidance, employees and employers have a better understanding of the expectations afforded to them.”

This could be why Knoles went on to say that she was “not particularly” surprised that the court ruled in Augustus’ favor.

“The absence of a similar statement in Brinker was creating some confusion as to whether meal and rest breaks should be treated similarly. Additionally, because rest breaks are paid time and meal breaks are not, clarity about employer requirements does help.”

Knoles also explained how the $90 million was calculated.

“[It] was a decision made at the trial court level and was based on a presentation of the evidence," she said. "Evidence included expert analysis, as to the amount of missed or interrupted breaks and the rates of play of employees. It also included penalties, interest and attorneys’ fees.”

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