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CA Supreme Court: 'On-Call' Rest Breaks Are Illegal

If your boss tells you that you can take a 10-minute break, but you have to be ready to jump back into action the whole time, that hardly feels like a break, right? That's what some residential and commercial security guards argued when they sued their employers over "on-call" and "on-duty" rest periods. After winning $90 million judgment, the award was overturned on appeal, and the guards took their case to the California Supreme Court.

Here's what the court said:

On-Call

The security guards worked for ABM Security Services, who required them to "keep their pagers and radio phones on -- even during rest periods -- and to remain vigilant and responsive to calls when needs arose." These needs included "physical security for the building, its tenants and their employees," as well as "an immediate and correct response to emergency/life safety situations."

In 2005 one guard filed a class action lawsuit claiming ABM failed to provide uninterrupted rest periods required by California state employment laws. The court sided with the security guards, ruling that "a rest period subject to such control was indistinguishable from the rest of a workday; in other words, an on-duty or on-call break is no break at all."

Off-Duty

That ruling was overturned by court of appeal, which disagreed that state law required employers to provide off-duty breaks, and that "simply being on call" doesn't constitute work. But the state supreme court wasn't buying that, noting "[t]he ordinary meaning of 'rest' conveys, in this context, the opposite of work," and that "state law prohibits on-duty and on-call rest periods."

"During required rest periods," the court concluded, "employers must relieve their employees of all duties and relinquish any control over how employees spend their break time." ABM failed to relinquish control by requiring guards to be on-call during those breaks, and therefore violated state employment laws. The court thus reversed the court of appeal, and reinstituted the trial court's ruling.

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