Nursing Assistant’s Meal and Rest Break Claims Can Proceed

By Joanne Deschenaux, J.D. October 30, 2023

Takeaway: Because an employer that fails to provide meal and rest breaks must give an impacted employee premium pay, which is due when the employee leaves the job, a California lawsuit filed within one year of the date the employee received her final wages but more than a year after her last day of employment was timely.  

​A nursing assistant who alleged that the Los Angeles care facility where she worked for nine years was so chronically understaffed—and she was so persistently overworked—that she never took a rest break and frequently had to work through her meal breaks can go forward with claims under the state Private Attorneys General Act (PAGA), a California appeals court recently ruled.

The trial court had dismissed the claims before trial, ruling that the plaintiff had not shown that any California Labor Code violations occurred during her employment in connection with her right to meal and rest periods.  

The plaintiff worked as a certified nursing assistant (CNA), providing patients with routine daily nursing care and services. These included assisting patients with bathing and brushing their teeth, keeping them comfortable, and attending to their basic hygiene needs.

She primarily worked the overnight shift, from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. The facility had three floors of patients, with 40 patients on each floor. Six CNAs and three licensed vocational nurses (LVNs) were assigned to the overnight shift, with two CNAs and one LVN per floor.

Even with a typical load of 20 patients per CNA, the plaintiff did not have sufficient time to accomplish her assigned tasks. But if one of the CNAs called in sick, the LVN would divide the absent CNA's patients among the remaining CNAs on other floors, increasing each person's workload. With only one CNA available on a floor rather than the usual two, taking a break meant leaving patients unattended.

Also, if an LVN needed help, she would call the plaintiff or another CNA to assist her, regardless of whether that person was taking a break.

The plaintiff worked her last shift on Nov. 8, 2018. She received her final wage statement on Nov. 21, 2018. It did not contain premium wages for missed meal and rest breaks. On Nov. 23, 2018, the plaintiff's employment was terminated.

The plaintiff filed her complaint on Nov. 19, 2019. She asserted causes of action for PAGA violations, including failure to provide meal and rest periods and failure to pay all wages due upon termination of employment. The trial court dismissed the action before trial, and the plaintiff appealed.

Relevant Labor Code Provisions

Under California's Labor Code, every employee is entitled to a 10-minute paid rest break per four hours of work and a 30-minute unpaid meal break per five hours of work. During those periods, the employer must relieve the employee of all work, relinquish control over their activities, and give them a reasonable opportunity to take an uninterrupted break. An employer may not undermine a formal policy of providing meal breaks by pressuring employees to perform their duties in ways that omit breaks.

If the employer fails to provide a required meal period or rest break, it must compensate the employee with a "premium"—an additional hour of pay for each workday during which a violation occurred.

When an employment relationship ends, employers must promptly pay all unpaid wages to the departing employee. Just like other forms of wages, any unpaid premium pay must be paid promptly once an employee leaves the job.

A PAGA action is subject to a one-year statute of limitations.

Allegations Regarding Meal and Rest Breaks

The plaintiff's complaint alleged that the facility had a pattern, practice and policy of not providing proper meal periods due to its scheduling and understaffing issues, high patient-to-nurse ratio and heavy workload. The plaintiff was instructed to clock out for meal periods and continue working. The facility also failed to pay an additional hour of wages for each workday in which a meal-period violation occurred.

The plaintiff similarly alleged that her breaks were interrupted whenever patients needed assistance, and she was required to work through rest breaks. The facility also failed to provide an additional hour of wages for each workday in which a rest-break violation occurred.

The facility's failure to pay meal and rest premiums at the time of the violations meant those premiums were due upon separation of employment. But, according to the complaint, the facility did not pay those wages in a timely fashion.

These allegations sufficiently stated causes of action for Labor Code violations under PAGA, the appeals court said, and the plaintiff could go forward with her claims. 

The court rejected the facility's argument that the plaintiff's claims were barred on statute of limitation grounds because any Labor Code violations occurred outside the limitations period, with the statute of limitations measured by one year from the last violation. Specifically, the facility had argued that the plaintiff's claims were time-barred because her last day of work was Nov. 8, 2018, and her complaint was not filed until Nov. 19, 2019.  

Although the plaintiff's last shift was on Nov. 8, 2018, her last wage statement was issued on Nov. 21, 2018, the appeals court noted. Any overdue premiums were required to have been paid in that wage statement and were not so paid. The plaintiff's PAGA claims were filed within one year of Nov. 21, 2018, and so were timely, the court concluded.   

Arce v. The Ensign Group Inc., Calif. Ct. App., No. B317161 (Oct. 19, 2023).

Joanne Deschenaux, J.D., is a freelance writer in Annapolis, Md.



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