Disputed Meal Rules Ditched

Times Staff Writer

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's administration Friday ditched a set of regulations that labor unions contend would have made it easier for employers to pressure workers to skip lunch and rest breaks.

The proposed regulations, which had been in the works for more than a year, expired when the state Division of Labor Standards Enforcement failed to meet a legal deadline for submitting them to a review panel. Regulators said they planned to rewrite the rules at an unspecified future date after convening a series of informal talks with business and organized labor.

"The previous rule making became too adversarial," said Schwarzenegger spokesman Rick Rice. "We want to approach it differently with advisory groups and fully talk it out."

Labor leaders saw the administration's decision to pull back the rules as a sign of improved relations with the Republican governor. Schwarzenegger lost a bruising battle with unions last fall when he failed to get voter approval for four initiatives he championed on the November ballot.

"We're relieved that he's backed down at this point," said Art Pulaski, executive secretary-treasurer of the California Labor Federation. Pulaski contends that the proposed regulations distorted the intent of the meal break law signed in 1999 by then-Gov. Gray Davis.

Friday's decision disappointed employers, said Jot Condie of the California Restaurant Assn. He accused unions of "demagoguing the issue" to try to confuse workers that they could lose their right to take breaks.

"We think this actually is a loss for restaurant employees and a loss for owners," Condie said.

The proposed regulations, backed by retailers and restaurant operators, would have shifted the responsibility for taking a meal break from bosses to their employees. Workers would have had the option to give up their lunch break if they worked fewer than six hours a day. The regulations also would have reduced the period during which businesses could be fined for failing to provide rest periods from three years to one year.

Business owners have complained that the 1999 law was being applied inconsistently, denying workers the flexibility to skip lunch and leave work early. Servers at restaurants often lose tips when forced to take breaks in the middle of serving customers. Businesses also complained that the law's three-year enforcement period made them vulnerable to class-action lawsuits.

A recent state Court of Appeal decision made it less urgent to put new rules on the books, said Rice, the governor's spokesman. The appeals court sided with employers, who argued that they should be liable for only one year of back pay as a penalty for making workers miss their lunch breaks.

Democrats in the state Legislature, who have been forging a more cooperative relationship with Schwarzenegger since the election, also welcomed the decision to start over on drafting the meal break rules.

"From the start, this proposal made little sense, from both practical and political points of view," said Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles), a onetime labor leader. "The pursuit of these regulations would have created an environment where employees would have had to choose between taking the break they deserved or losing their job."

The proposed lunch break rules were deemed an urgent matter when unveiled as "emergency regulations" in December 2004. In early 2005, the administration touted the rules by sending video news releases, with fake reporters interviewing government officials, to TV stations.

Last month, a Sacramento County Superior Court judge, ruling on a lawsuit brought by unions, declared that the Schwarzenegger administration violated state law by making and distributing the videos.

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