In the recently decided case of Valles v. Ivy Hill Corporation, two union employees sued their employer for not providing meal and rest periods in accordance with California law. The collective bargaining agreement between the union and the employer provided that employees would be provided off-duty meal periods; and, that if they were required to work during their meal period they would be paid time and one half. The employer often required the employees to work through their meal periods, but paid them only regular time.

Rather than following the grievance process under the collective bargaining agreement, the employees sued in state court alleging violation of Labor Code §226.7 which requires employers to provide off-duty meal periods, and further provides a penalty of an extra hour’s pay for each day on which the employer fails to provide appropriate meal periods. The employer removed the case to federal court where it argued that the case should be dismissed because the employees’ claims were preempted by the Labor Management Relations Act (“LMRA”) 29 U.S.C. §185.

The employer made two arguments for LMRA preemption. First, it argued that Labor Code §226.7 does not apply to union employees whose terms and conditions of employment are governed by a collective bargaining agreement. Secondly, the employer argued that even if the Labor Code section did apply, the employees’ rights under that section had been negotiated away as part of the collective bargaining process. The Ninth Circuit disagreed with both arguments. It found that the California Legislature clearly intended for §226.7 to apply to union employees (though certain overtime provisions of the Labor Code do not). It further found that the right to meal periods is nonnegotiable, opining that the meal period provisions address some of the “most basic demands of an employee’s health and welfare.” [Citations omitted]. The Ninth Circuit ordered that the case be allowed to continue in state court.

Though not central to its holding regarding the application of Labor Code §226.7 to employees covered by collective bargaining agreements, the Court did refer to the section’s provision of an extra hour’s pay for missed meal periods as a penalty as opposed to a wage. This is an important issue which will, presumably, be raised in further proceedings before the state court.