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Workers Must Be Given a Rest Area

January 07, 2002

Question: I work in a hospital laboratory and am supposed to take my break from 2 to 2:30 a.m., but the janitors have been told to lock the cafeteria from 2 to 7 a.m. because the graveyard shift has been messing it up.

Now I can't get access to vending machines to buy food and don't have a clean place to eat. The lab counters and tables are contaminated with blood and other material.

Is it legal for the company to lock the cafeteria? Does it have an obligation to provide another clean area where we can eat?

--L.I., La Puente

Answer: Employers are obligated under California law to make "suitable resting facilities" (separate from restrooms) available to employees during working hours.

Employers also are required to provide a suitable place for employees to eat their meals if employees are required to eat on the premises.

Though you may not technically be required to remain on the premises during your meal break, at that hour you probably are effectively prevented from leaving the hospital to take your break.

As a result, it appears the hospital would be required to make the cafeteria available for you and other employees who must take their breaks from 2 to 7 a.m., or provide another lounge area or break room for your use.

--James J. McDonald Jr.

Attorney, Fisher & Phillips

Labor law instructor,

UC Irvine

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Tell Management When Supervisor Is Ineffective

Q: Our company appointed a new supervisor who is in another office and is not up to the job.

We have had to clean up several conflicts with clients. Office supplies aren't being purchased, and the staff is making its own work schedules, including vacations.

Is there any good way to intervene without harming our own careers with the higher-ups? Or is it time to start looking for a new job? Most of us have been here a long time and like the work we do.

--D.Q., Oxnard

A: If this new supervisor is not doing his or her job effectively, management needs to know about it.

If you present this information in a positive, constructive way, emphasizing that you have the company's best interests at heart, I seriously doubt there would be negative repercussions for you or your colleagues.

Should company management take unfair action against loyal, concerned employees such as yourselves, you might want to consider working for a company with a less oppressive organizational culture.

--Ron Riggio, director

Kravis Leadership Institute

Claremont McKenna College

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Employee Might Be Held Accountable in Lawsuit

Q: After leaving the company where I served as an on-site project manager, a subcontractor sued the company, its owners and five employees, including me, over an unpaid bill.

As a result, I have hired a lawyer--at $265 an hour. I earned $33.60 an hour when I was with the company.

Working for a small company with limited assets, where employees are asked to sign contract agreements and vendor orders doesn't seem to be worth it if you are subject to this kind of nightmare.

Do employees often get dragged into these kinds of disputes as defendants?

--M.B., Laguna Niguel

A: Plaintiffs usually will not involve employees as defendants in these types of matters unless the company has financial problems or has filed for bankruptcy.

But there's no doubt employees should be alert to potential personal liability when acting on behalf of the employer.

If the contract you signed states that you are personally guaranteeing the debt, you may be technically responsible.

You also might be held personally responsible if you sign payroll checks without the proper withholding and if the company does not eventually pay these amounts.

Regardless of the employer's responsibility, you may have been included in the lawsuit without proper justification.

Signing a contract would not make you responsible if it is obvious you are acting simply as your employer's agent.

You should ask the plaintiff's attorney to justify your involvement in the lawsuit. You or your attorney might consider mentioning "malicious prosecution," in which the plaintiffs might face liability for suing you without an adequate reason.

Your former employer also should be motivated to pay your attorney's fees. The company probably would want to maintain you as a "friendly" witness, for example, to help protect it from liability.

California law also requires an employer to reimburse employees for work-related expenses, and these fees should fall within that area.

--Don D. Sessions

Employee rights attorney

Mission Viejo

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If you have a question about an on-the-job situation, please mail it to Shop Talk, Los Angeles Times, P.O. Box 2008, Costa Mesa, CA 92626; dictate it to (714) 966-7873; or e-mail it to shoptalk@latimes.com. Include your initials and hometown. The Shop Talk column is designed to answer questions of general interest. It should not be construed as legal advice. Recent Shop Talk columns are available at www.latimes.com/shoptalk.

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