Arnold Schwarzenegger famously enjoys eating lunch, often at the fanciest restaurants in town. But he is hell-bent on ensuring that California workers don’t get to eat lunch at all. Why? To benefit big corporate contributors who have lined his campaign coffers with millions.
So determined is the Governator to deny workers their meal periods, which are guaranteed under California law, that he has cast aside truth and the norms of democracy.
His administration’s opening volley on this issue showed how low it is willing to go. Just before Christmas, the governor declared the meal break situation an “emergency” — the emergency apparently being that California workers were actually getting to eat lunch. On this basis, the administration tried to sneak through new lunch-break regulations during the holidays, hoping no one would notice.
But California unions noticed, and mobilized public opposition to the regulations, because they opened loopholes for employers to deny workers their meal periods. Labor also pointed out that no “emergency” existed to justify the governor’s circumvention of the democratic process for enacting regulations.
Schwarzenegger had to pull the illegal “emergency” regulations. But, after wiping the egg off his face, he resubmitted the very same regulations after the New Year.
It was around this time that truth went on holiday. Taking a page from Bush’s playbook, Schwarzenegger’s people produced a fake video news report supporting the regulations — government propaganda disguised as real news, produced and paid for with taxpayer dollars, sent out to television news shows throughout the state. These videos repeated the lies and distortions that have emanated from the governor and his big business minions from day one. It is time to set the record straight.
The governor contends that the new regulations are designed merely to provide more “flexibility” in the time of day that workers take their lunch periods. That is a lie. The truth is they would create new loopholes whereby millions of California workers will be denied their legal right to take a meal period at all. The regulations would also let employers off the hook for millions of dollars in back pay when they violate the law. Here’s how.
The California Labor Code guarantees workers the right to an unpaid 30-minute meal period for every five-hour “work period.” Therefore, a worker on a typical eight-hour shift gets one meal period. A worker whose shift extends longer than 10 hours gets two meal periods. Where an employer fails to provide a required meal period, the employer must pay one hour of pay to the aggrieved worker. Arnold’s regulations would undermine the law in three significant ways.
First, they contain a potential loophole under which employers could deny meal periods to employees. The law requiring employers to “provide” the meal periods has always been interpreted to mean that the employer must guarantee that the meal period is actually taken.
Anyone who has ever worked for a boss (million-dollar acting jobs not included) understands why this rule is necessary. In the real world, many employers unofficially pressure employees to “waive” the meal period and other rights, even while officially allowing it. Employers have any number of ways of applying such pressure, whether it’s openly suggesting that workers skip their breaks, favoring those who do so, or assigning so much work that employees must work through their breaks in order to keep up. Adding insult to injury, many employers do this while still deducting 30 minutes from the paycheck, which means the employee works the lunch break for free. Even with the current laws, such violations are rampant.
The proposed regulations would make it much easier for employers to do this. The regulations would hold that the employer has met its obligation to “provide” a meal period as long as it makes the meal period “available”; employers no longer must guarantee that the meal period is actually taken. This would gut workers’ rights to meal periods, because it would allow employers unofficially to pressure workers to give up their breaks, while officially “allowing” breaks to be taken.
Second, the regulations could drastically reduce employers’ liability for back pay, through a stealth provision intended to reduce the number of years an employee can collect in court, from three years to one year. This is a brazen multi-million-dollar giveaway to employers who have violated the law and are currently being sued for it, including several big donors to the governor’s campaigns.
Schwarzenegger’s attack on our rights — and the dishonesty with which he has waged it — is enough to make California workers lose their lunch. But they don’t have to. Public outrage and protest already forced the governor to rescind the emergency regulations, and to soften the proposals somewhat. Now we must force him to dump the regulations altogether, and save lunch and rest periods, by writing the governor, attending the public forums on the regulations, and sending written comments to the state labor commission, urging them to reject the regulations.
Jason Rabinowitz (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a labor lawyer in Sacramento, Calif.