Court refuses to indulge claims of ‘meal period’ driver plaintiffs

A group of mixer truck drivers sought $6 million in a class action lawsuit, alleging former employer Granite Rock Co. violated California labor laws requiring off-duty meal periods or payment for duty-free meal periods. A Santa Clara County Superior Court decision issued last month suggests that instead of being awarded back pay and legal fee largesse, Driscoll et al. vs. Granite Rock plaintiffs and their counsel were handed their lunches.

The decision validates what many in ready mixed and aggregate production would surmise about Watsonville, Calif.-based Graniterock: It obeys the law of a less-than-business-friendly state and applies sound human resource management to ensure employees are fully compensated for work performed. The document also shows the judge’s understanding of how ready mixed concrete presents unique circumstances compared to the many workplace environments where mandated 30-minute breaks are feasible.

“Employers can become bewildered with California’s meal period regulations. The elements of proof needed are a clear policy providing meal periods, company-wide communication on this subject so that employees know their rights, and clear opportunities for individuals to express to the employer their meal period preference,” said Graniterock CEO Bruce Woolpert.

“At the center of [Driscoll] is the clarification of a critical wage and hour issue—that employers are required to make meal periods available to employees but are not required to force employees to take a lunch break,” added lead attorney Alan Levins of Littler Mendelson, San Francisco.

Driscoll was filed in January 2008 on behalf of five mixer truck drivers and consolidated with a similar case involving their Graniterock peers in another northern California county. At points the class action encompassed upwards of 200 drivers.

In a June–July 2011 trial, the Court weighed Graniterock compliance with state Wage Order and Labor Code provisions, noting especially how a voluntary “on-duty meal period agreement” enabled drivers to a) waive a 30-minute meal period in the interest of keeping their load-delivery schedule positions and completing their work days earlier; and, b) realize a premium rate, determined by collective bargaining agreement or individual company branch, for working the meal period window. Drivers could revoke their signed agreements with one day’s notice.

Plaintiffs challenged the notice’s validity and the agreement’s voluntary nature. Judge James Kleinberg rejected claims of missed meal compensation, writing that Graniterock did not require, expect or train drivers to involuntarily sign an agreement or to work through lunch; had a legally compliant meal period policy in its handbook; and, informed drivers that they could ask dispatchers for off-duty meal periods, the dispatchers honoring such requests.

“Graniterock did nothing to interfere with drivers’ ability to take an off-duty meal period. Drivers did not take off-duty meal periods because they did not want them. No one went hungry—they ate during their downtime … Even if the Court were to adopt the ‘suffer or permit’ legal standard Plaintiffs advocate, it would still find Graniterock exercised at least reasonable care to see that its employees received off-duty meal periods.”

That finding stemmed from the testimony of 25 current Graniterock drivers, none of whom offered support for plaintiff claims. Among 30 other witnesses were two experts the plaintiffs called to establish a wage violation rate—determined by review of former drivers’ timecards—and calculate damages and penalties. Their math and methodology led the Court to find their testimony “unreliable and unpersuasive.”

Driscoll drivers should understand that a California construction rebound restoring the opportunity to punch timecards partly hinges on honest employers’ ability to conduct business free of class action threats.