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Santa Cruz Sentinel
WATSONVILLE — After three years of litigation and a 14-day bench trial, a Santa Clara County judge has ruled that GraniteRock Co. Inc. was within the law when it let concrete mixer truck drivers opt out of formal lunch breaks in exchange for extra pay and getting off work early.
“I don’t even know how you’d be in the concrete business if everyone who drives a mixer truck would have to stop and have a lunch within five hours,” said Bruce Woolpert, Graniterock president and chief executive officer. “I just don’t know how you’d run a business.”
The case, filed in January 2008, involved six former Graniterock employees who represented about 200 other employees in a class-action suit. The Driscoll, et al. v. Graniterock Co. plaintiffs sought $6 million in restitution and penalties for the company’s alleged failure to adequately provide meal breaks to concrete mixer truck drivers and pay them an extra hour for missed meal breaks. Other practices in question included waiting time penalties and inaccurate pay stubs. The court ruled in favor of Graniterock on all issues.
“We basically hit a bull’s-eye as to what the law meant,” Woolpert said, noting that ambiguous state regulations have spawned a host of similar legal challenges throughout the state.
In the Driscoll case, Graniterock contended that as long as a meal break is provided, an employee, who has signed an on-duty meal agreement, can voluntarily agree to waive the 30-minute uninterrupted meal period. The company also argued that while there are many waiting periods in the day of a mixer driver, the nature of the business — working with wet concrete — precluded set meal times.
“When the truck leaves the yard, he can’t pull over at Eric’s Deli and have a sandwich,” Woolpert said. “It’s more perishable than strawberries. From the time the truck leaves the yard and to when it comes back, we have to keep moving.”
Plaintiffs argued, however, that the work did not prevent drivers from taking breaks and Graniterock had to set the mandatory lunch breaks or pay a penalty.
Superior Court Judge James Kleinberg ruled Friday that while the law demands that an employer provide a lunch break, an employer is not legally responsible to ensure it is taken. He noted that no Graniterock driver was ever denied a lunch break, there were no filed grievances, and drivers testified that dispatchers regularly helped them meet demanding schedules of being a single parent, coaching a youth basketball team and taking care of personal business during work hours. Drivers, he said, preferred to eat on duty to get home earlier, receive premium pay or not have to want to sit around “twiddling their thumbs” off the clock.
“This is not a case where class members toil in ignorance and it is only when a lawsuit is brought do they become aware of their possible recovery,” Kleinberg said.
This case is just one of many similar cases filling the California courts because of ambiguities in state labor laws, Woolpert said.
“It’s why a lot of people move their businesses to Nevada. The state has a set of regulations and if you have five people reading them, they all would come away with different ideas of what it said. Our litigation was to clarify what the law really said,” Woolpert said. “I just didn’t want the company to still be struggling with what the heck does this mean’ for the next 60 years.”
The question of whether employers have to mandate lunch breaks is currently pending in state Supreme Court.
“This is an important issue that’s really at the forefront of employment law right now,” said Alan Levins of Littler Mendelson, a labor and employment law firm representing management. “We proved that lunch was available and if an employee chooses not to take lunch, the employer should not be penalized. One can only hope that the Supreme Court is taking note of what the trial court did in this case.”
Lead plaintiffs’ attorney Joseph Clapp said Monday that the ruling was likely to discourage other valid cases from being brought in Santa Clara County.
“It’s very difficult for me to explain his ruling, frankly,” Clapp said. “There is no doubt they Graniterock are attempting to use invalid on-duty meal periods to justify off-duty meal periods. He Kleinberg issued an incredibly restrictive ruling showing an unfriendly attitude toward this particular law.”