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Court Won’t Certify Class Action in Blow to Workers’ Rights

The Corporate Food Industry has often been the scene of labor rights abuses ranging from dodging minimum pay laws to mandating long hours linked to the ebb and flow of customer patronage at  food establishments.  Many a waiter and waitress will tell you that they rarely are given the mandatory breaks required by State law. Recently, employees of Joe’s Crab Shack in California banded together in a Class Action lawsuit against the restaurant claiming their employers failed to, among other things, provide employees with meal and rest breaks.

However, the Northern District Court of California denied class certification citing skepticism that an overall trend could be established through analysis of individual records. This ruling demonstrates the difficulties faced by employees who want to use the collective power granted by Class Action suits to redress illegal corporate policies that are often “off the books” and unofficial company culture.

According to court documents, “Plaintiff’s position is that common questions predominate because the main issue is whether…Joe’s Crab Shack restaurants in California followed a common unwritten policy of denying meal and rest breaks, failing to pay employees who did not take breaks, failing to pay for overtime, requiring employees to purchase their own uniforms, and so forth.”  Lawyers for the employees argued that they could establish a pattern of abuse through analysis of the restaurant’s Aloha computer system.

The Court responded that establishing this and other wrongs would emerge from individualized inquiries, thus the “only way of showing the ‘practice’ that plaintiff claims existed in California restaurants would be to determine how when and how it was applied in each instance.”

Like many systematic infractions on labor rights, the practice of discouraging or outright prohibiting meal breaks was not written into official company policy.  As such, proving that such abuses were institutional can be difficult. As the court notes, Plaintiff “must show that the employer impeded, discouraged, or prohibited him from taking a proper break.”

Examination of employee time cards clearly show a pattern of “breakless” shifts. The Court’s view is that it might have been an employee’s choice not to take a meal break. It is an interesting position: after all, how many workers routinely reject the chance to take a break and consume a meal during a long, physically demanding shift?  On the other hand, food workers are primarily dependent on tips, and time not spent on the floor waiting tables is viewed as lost money.  How does one determine collective intentions across a class?

In any event, the Court’s reasoning for declining to certify the class invites questions about the nature of Class Action in general.  If one cannot establish a pattern of institutional abuse through analyzing a trend that emerges through individual experience…then how does one construct a pattern at all?  All Classes are composed of individuals who suffered common wrongs.  Further, it is often only the collective power of a Class that can confront the combined legal might of a large corporation.

The California Court’s refusal to certify may signal a shift in the willingness of Courts to side with Workers against their Employers in the case of Class Actions.

Employees In Washington and Seattle who believe they are subject to unfair labor practices should contact an expert Labor & Industries Lawyer.  Denying basic access to meal and rest breaks and withholding pay are serious violations of Labor Laws and Workers should not be intimidated when securing their basic rights as workers. An experienced Washington L & I Attorney is waiting to speak to you.

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Emery Reddy