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Delays in meal breaks sought

METROLINK COLLISION

Bus and rail workers' employer had lobbied for a rule change, but state legislators rejected the effort.

September 20, 2008|Patrick McGreevy | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — The company that provides engineers for Metrolink trains spent $105,000 during the last two years lobbying state lawmakers to give it flexibility to delay meal breaks for employees, including those who drive public transit buses.

Investigators looking into the Sept. 12 crash between a Metrolink commuter train and a Union Pacific freight train have been examining human fatigue, including work schedules, as a possible contributing factor to the wreck, which occurred after the Metrolink train sped through a red signal.

Five months ago, state lawmakers rejected legislation pushed by Veolia Transportation that would have allowed meal breaks for transportation workers to be delayed until nearly the seventh hour of a work shift. The current rules require at least a half-hour meal break at the start of the fifth hour of a shift that lasts more than five hours.

The company disputes whether the proposed rule change would have applied to Metrolink, but said it would have applied to its employees who drive mass transit buses.

Investigators are trying to determine whether the Metrolink engineer, an employee of Veolia, missed signal lights because he was fatigued by working back-to-back split shifts that began before dawn and ended at 9 p.m.

Engineer Robert M. Sanchez was on a schedule of working 53 hours over five days at the time of the accident, in which 25 people, including Sanchez, died. His workday was split between a 3 1/2 -hour shift in the morning and a 7-hour shift in the evening, with a 4 1/2 -hour break in between.

There has been a been a running battle in Sacramento for the last two years over the issue of breaks for transportation workers and others.

Veolia, part of a French multinational company, hired lobbyists to influence two bills in Sacramento that could have changed the rules on meal breaks. The firm and its executives have also made more than $80,000 in contributions during the last decade to California politicians.

Current state law requires that employees who work more than six consecutive hours be provided a meal break of at least half an hour at the beginning of their fifth hour. The bills, which died in committee, would have allowed meal breaks to be provided as late as the completion of the sixth hour of work.

Veolia lobbyist William E. Barnaby argued that the current meal requirements add to the expense of services.

"The inflexibility of existing law has significantly increased businesses expenses . . . and has made it impossible to accommodate employee requests for meal period adjustments so they can take care of personal and family needs," Barnaby wrote to lawmakers.

Union groups including the California Labor Federation argued that the law would "permit employers to wait until the seventh hour of work to take a meal, period."

The federation's Caitlin Vega warned legislators that such delays could put people at risk. "Taking regular breaks is essential for worker health and safety and is key to preventing workplace injuries," she wrote to legislators.

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patrick.mcgreevy@latimes.com

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On latimes.com

Chatsworth collision

For complete coverage of the Metrolink crash and a database of the victims, see

latimes.com/metrolink.

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