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Lunchtime Proposals Challenged

January 06, 2006|Marc Lifsher | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — If Arnold Schwarzenegger is serious about helping low-income workers, he should ditch regulations he proposed last year that could make it easier for employers to pressure workers to not take their legally required meal breaks, labor leaders said Thursday.

The comments came as Schwarzenegger pledged Thursday night in his annual State of the State speech to boost the $6.75-an-hour minimum wage by $1 over the next 18 months.

Raising the wage for the first time in four years would benefit workers, Art Pulaski of the California Labor Federation said. But the governor shouldn't offset the hike with "any sleight of hand that sneaks the lunch break away from workers," he said.

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

The regulations, which have been under consideration for more than a year, are scheduled to be completed and sent to the California Office of Administrative Law for a review by Dec. 13, said Dean Fryer of the Department of Industrial Relations.

Labor leaders say the regulations distort the intent of the meal-break law, signed in 1999 by then Gov. Gray Davis. Employers contend that the law was being applied inconsistently, and that the three-year enforcement window left them open to expensive class-action lawsuits.

The courts have given mixed signals about how they would interpret the law. Last month, an Alameda County Superior Court jury hit Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world's largest retailer, with a $172-million verdict, including $115 million in punitive damages, for failing to provide meal breaks to 200,000 California workers.

Pulaski, in a Nov. 18 letter to the governor, accused him of attempting to change the law in a way that "protects bad employers who break the law."

Schwarzenegger has not replied to the letter, Pulaski said. Vince Sollitto, a spokesman for the governor, said the minimum wage and lunch breaks are two distinct issues. "One is about giving workers increased wages; the other is about giving them increased flexibility with their work schedules," he said.

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