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California Farmworkers Compensated for Unpaid Rest Breaks

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Farmworkers have finally been compensated for unpaid rest breaks after their second trip to Appeals Court

San Joaquin, CAA group of farmworkers have finally been compensated after a California appeals court rejected their unpaid rest breaks--twice. The farm laborers first filed their California labor lawsuit in 2009 against their employer; the case went to court in 2014 and plaintiffs appealed in 2016.

Alfredo Sanchez and four other plaintiffs sued their employer, Miguel Martinez, on behalf of 100 other farm employees. One of the plaintiffs’ claims concerned Martinez’s failure to pay his employees for rest periods. The case went to trial and the trial court awarded $416 in damages and $17,775 in civil penalties based on the employer’s failure to pay the employees for time they spent on authorized rest periods, according to The appellate court rejected the employees’ argument that they were entitled to damages equal to the minimum wage for time spent on rest periods plus an additional hour of pay for each rest period. 

Double Dipping

For a second time, the California appeals court in San Joaquin rejected plaintiffs’ claims they should be paid the minimum wage for time they spent on rest breaks and an additional hour of pay under a separate section of the state Labor Code. The rejection was explained (in an 18-page decision) as being compensated twice for the same injury, which is disallowed. In other words, employees denied pay for rest periods cannot recover damages under more than one law.

A Justia opinion summary explained how the Court of Appeal previously heard plaintiffs' claims and how it first considered plaintiffs’ appeal of a judgment that rejected all their claims against Martinez. “Although the judgment was affirmed for the most part, the Court reversed to allow plaintiffs to proceed on two of their claims, one of which concerned Martinez’s failure to pay plaintiffs for rest periods, and another of which was derivative of their rest-period claim…Martinez was obligated to pay his employees for the time they spent on authorized rest periods. However, the Court found nothing in the evidence to show he had ever paid his employees for this time.”

Although California labor law requires employers to provide paid rest breaks as well as “one additional hour of pay” when it fails to provide rest periods, plaintiffs did not claim they were denied rest breaks, only that they weren’t paid for the time they weren’t working. They worked for Martinez pruning grape vines at a piece rate.

All employees working in the State of California, including agricultural workers, have certain rights that are protected by the California labor law, including the right to rest breaks and meal breaks. California has almost 70,000 farms in operation across 24.3 million acres of land, with 400,000 agricultural workers deemed essential. They are exempt from shelter-in-place orders, and their hard work continues through the pandemic to keep markets stocked nationwide, yet many workers are “lucky to get minimum wage,” Armando Elenes, secretary-treasurer of the United Farm Workers of America, told The Guardian, March 2020).

Piece-Rate Worker Break Periods

The California Labor Law was updated in 2016 and addresses California employers who pay employees a piece-rate for any part of their work.
  • Employers are required to pay piece-rate employees for rest and recovery periods, and all periods of “other nonproductive time” separately from, and in addition to, their piece-rate pay.
  • Employers must pay piece-rate employees for rest and recovery periods at an hourly rate determined by dividing the employee’s total pay for the workweek by the total hours worked during the workweek (not including rest and recovery periods).

Rest periods must be provided as follows:
  • Employees working between 3 1/2 and 6 hours are entitled to one paid 10-minute break
  • Employees working between 6 hours and 10 hours are entitled to two paid10-minute breaks
  • Employees working between 10 hours and 14 hours are entitled to three paid 10-minutes breaks; and so on.
  • Although it is not required by the law, rest breaks should be taken, within reason, in the middle of each work period.
  • In general, one rest break should be allowed before the meal break, and one should be after, if an employee is working an eight-hour shift. Rest breaks count as time worked and employees must be paid for this time. Employers are also required to provide a suitable rest facility such as a break area or kitchen.
  • If employees are not allowed to take a rest period, the law entitles them to one hour of pay at the their regular rate of pay for each workday that rest periods are not made available.

Break Laws for Agricultural Workers

Agriculture and outdoor workers such as landscaping and farming employees are entitled to sufficient rest breaks when temperatures exceed 85 degrees. This is defined as a minimum five minutes in the shade, on an “as needed” basis.
The law covers all agricultural employees, including illegal immigrants.

If an employee does not receive the proper meal and rest periods the employer must pay to the employee one hour of pay as a penalty. This penalty also applies to “recovery periods” or “cool down periods afforded an employee to prevent heat illness.”


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