In the past few years, the court systems in many states have seen an upswing in the number of class action lawsuits being filed on behalf of workers who claim to have been denied overtime pay, along with rest breaks and meal periods. Some states such as California have very strict laws concerning some basic employee work provisions, with rest breaks and meal periods addressed directly.
While overtime pay has been a basic component of the lawsuits, rest and meal period violations are the items that are most prevalent in almost every suit. Furthermore, the violations are not isolated, as many of the major awards have been from employment situations that were systemically illegal. Violations were business policy.
The At-Will Employment Model
The employment situation that allows these cases to manifest is the at-will employment policy used in the U.S. capitalist economic system. There are actually minimal national labor laws in the United States, even though the opposite is often assumed. The problem with the policy is that the will within the system is all the will of the employer, with the possible exception of an employee's right to quit at any time if they do not like the conditions of their employment.
The employer in this micro setting has full power to operate the business, within some basic limits. The attitudes of many employers are abrasive and coercive, and employees are often afraid of losing their jobs if they complain or file suit. This unbalanced power structure in the workplace is where the legal problems usually begin.
State Labor Regulations
Most labor requirements are actually addressed at the state level, and some states such as California have general employee protections concerning some basic employee needs. Two of those needs are break periods and meal periods, both of which are defined legally in terms of the amount of time and the purpose of the break. Unsurprisingly, there has been a significant number of lawsuits being filed over work conditions in California, as well as other states that are also diligent in protecting workers.
These states are also where a potential national focus may evolve as states take notice of what is happening within their state economies. It's no secret that states compete for economic growth, and having a reputation for protecting the necessary workers is part of that comprehensive policy drive. While several state governments pay little attention to employee rights, states attempting to attract high-paying jobs requiring highly qualified workers are paying attention.
Defining Overtime and Meal Periods
The federal government does have a basic guideline for what constitutes the need for overtime pay rates and meal breaks. Overtime is classified as performing more than 40 hours of work in a given seven-day period. Double time is paid on the seventh day, with time-and-a-half for other overtime work. Some industries, such as the transportation one, are standardized differently based on rest periods and driving limits. States do regularly require breaks, and the federal government has defined a meal period as lasting for at least 30 minutes. Employers are not required to pay employees during the time period who are given a full meal break.
Typically, rest breaks are 15–20 minute rest periods and are considered as time worked, so employers must pay employees during the shorter break. Full meal breaks must be offered to employees within a five-hour work period unless the work day is six hours or less. Employees and employers do have an option of an individual agreement as long as the employee is paid appropriately, which is often another place where the legal issues begin.
Anyone who is in an employment situation where violations concerning overtime pay and meal breaks are occurring should contact an employment lawyer about their individual case, who can then evaluate the situation for class action inclusion or for developing an initial class action filing. To correct these kinds of workplace issues, it often takes a significant number of plaintiffs to actually get the attention of the employer, as well as a highly-qualified employment legal professional to craft the claim.