Not all states require that employees be given an unpaid meal break. In states that do require meal breaks litigation against employers is common. The Washington Supreme Court in Brady v. AutoZone Stores, Inc., 2017 Wash. LEXIS 681, recently weighed in on this issue and its ruling will require employers to be more diligent in making sure that workers either take their meal breaks or clearly waive their right to a 30 minute break when a work shift exceeds five hours.
The court was asked to clarify two questions under the state’s labor laws: 1) Is an employer strictly liable under the Washington meal break law (WAC 296-126-092) whenever an employee does not take a meal break? and 2) If an employer is not strictly liable, does the employee carry the burden of proving that his employer did not permit the employee an opportunity to take a meaningful break as required by the law?
The court gave an emphatic “No” to the first question. An employer cannot be automatically liable when a worker misses a meal break because Washington workers have the right to waive their meal breaks. The court then turned to the issue of whether the employer or the employee had the burden of proof concerning missed meal breaks.
The court ruled an employee asserting a meal break violation can establish his or her claim by providing evidence that he or she did not receive timely meal breaks. The burden of proof then shifts to the employer to rebut the allegations by showing that in fact no violation occurred or that the meal break was waived. This ruling is tough on employers. The court holds that when workers provide proof that they did not take a meal break the employer must prove that the employee waived the required break or that the allegation is untrue. The court suggests that this places little burden on employers because employers must keep records of an employee’s hours worked and meal breaks can easily be accounted for.
This may be true in businesses where workers are closely supervised and whose work hours are closely monitored. This may difficult in the self storage context where site employees have significant control over their workday and there is often not a supervisor at the facility to make sure that meal breaks are taken. This places a significant burden on facility owners. Owners must have a policy that site employees take the required meal break each workday and also have a system whereby each site employee may record having taken the require break. Employers must also maintain these records in the event of a dispute.
Washington does permit employees to waive their meal break and while a written waiver is not required, is always risky to relay upon an oral waiver. Washington self storage operators should have a clear written employment policy that site employees must take at least a thirty minute meal period which commences no less than two hours nor more than five hours from the beginning of the shift.