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Archive for the ‘rest break rights’ Category

Commercial drivers & medical certification (and other alarming commercial transportation safety matters)

Tuesday, November 2nd, 2010

Workers Comp Insider LogoOn Mother’s Day in 1999, Custom Bus Charters’ bus driver Frank Bedell veered off a highway near New Orleans, killing 22 passengers and injuring 20 others. Just 10 hours before this trip, Bedell was treated at a local hospital for “nausea and weakness.” He had been treated at least 20 times in the 21 months prior to the accident, and 10 of those times involved hospitalization for “life-threatening” heart and kidney disease. You can read more about this horrific crash, which remains one of the nation’s deadliest bus crashes, at NOLA.com: Loopholes let sick man drive, safety board says. Also of interest: Breaking the law went with the job.

This accident brought the issue of the medical competence of commercial drivers to the public attention in a dramatic way. In its subsequent report of the accident after the investigation, The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) determined that “…the probable cause of this accident was the driver’s incapacitation due to his severe medical conditions and the failure of the medical certification process to detect and remove the driver from service. Other factors that may have had a role in the accident were the driver’s fatigue and the driver’s use of marijuana and a sedating antihistamine.

The incident and investigation prompted NTSB to issue Safety Recommendations revolving around medical certification of commercial drivers.

How are we doing today?
Nearly a decade later, how are these safety measures designed to protect the public from medically unsafe commercial drivers working out? Not too well, according to a recent investigative report by News21, which was published by MSNBC in the article Truckers fit to drive — if a chiropractor says so: “From 2002, when the recommendations were made, through 2008, the last year for which data is available, there were at least 826 fatal crashes involving medically unqualified or fatigued drivers, according to a News21 analysis of the FMCSA Crash Statistics database.”

The article paints a scary portrait of a driver medical certification program that is pretty broken. Truck drivers can pop into roadside clinics to pick up certifications issued after a cursory examination by almost any health professional. And that’s a good scenario – drivers can also download online certificates and fill them out themselves or ignore the requirement entirely. Forgeries are a common occurrence. Being caught without a certificate might result in a slap-on-the-wrist fine. While there have been calls for a national registry for medical certification of commercial drivers, the idea has made little progress. It will probably take the next big incident to ignite public outrage to motivate any change.

For a resource on current regulations, see the US Department of Transportation Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s Medical Programs, which includes medical regulations and notices, including drug and alcohol testing.

The News21 story on commercial drivers is the third part in a series of four articles that deal with transportation and public safety. Here are the others:

Part 1:
Driving While Tired: Safety officials are slow to react to operator fatigue:
“NTSB does not track fatigue-related highway accidents on a regular basis. But in 1993, the board commissioned a study expecting to learn about the effects of drugs and alcohol on trucking accidents. Investigators studied all heavy-trucking accidents that year and made an unexpected discovery: Fatigue turned out to be the bigger problem. NTSB Crash investigators said driver fatigue played a key role in a bus accident in Utah in 2008 that killed nine people returning from a ski trip.
The study found 3,311 heavy truck accidents killed 3,783 people that year, and between 30 percent and 40 percent of those accidents were fatigue-related.”

Part 2: Video in the cockpit: Privacy vs. safety
In 200, the NTSB added a recommendation for video recorders to be installed in commercial and charter planes to its “most wanted” list. Pilot unions and other groups have lobbied this safety measure. See this story’s sidebar article: Shhhh! Your pilot is napping

Part 4: Outsourcing safety: Airplane repairs move to unregulated foreign shops
“More maintenance has moved overseas. Airlines are not required to use regulated repair shops. Foreign repair stations can go five years between inspections, and even then are often tipped off that inspectors are coming. Manuals are in English, but not all the workers read English. Drug tests of workers are illegal in some countries.
A News21 analysis of Federal Aviation Administration data showed that about 15,000 accidents or safety incidents in all aviation travel can be attributed at least in part to inferior maintenance or repairs since 1973, when the FAA started keeping such records. In these accidents at least 2,500 people died and 4,200 were injured.”

Most wanted list: transportation safety improvements
The NTSB keeps a most wanted list of transportation safety improvements, in which it makes recommendations for critical safety improvements for various transportation sectors. Recommendations are designed to improve public safety and save lives, but many have been on the list for years. In some cases, individual states may have requirements, but these recommendations are national in scope. While issues on the “most wanted list” are pending, individual employers might use the list as best practice guidance for safety programs to limit exposure both for workers compensation and other liability issues that might arise from commercial transportation accidents.

You can find more reports on transportation and public safety at News21, “a national initiative led by 12 of America’s leading research universities with the support of two major foundations” with a purpose of furthering in-depth and investigative reporting. In 2010, one of the main areas of focus has been Breakdown: Traveling Dangerously in America.

This article was originally published on Workers Comp Insider.

About the Author: Julie Ferguson is an insurance industry consultant with more than 20 years experience developing and implementing communications programs for workers compensation, workplace health & safety, employee communications, and general insurance programs. She founded and serves as editor for the nation’s first insurance weblog, Lynch Ryan’s Workers Comp Insider. She also founded and manages HR Web Café, a weblog for ESI Employee Assistance Group; Consumer Insurance Blog for the Renaissance Insurance Group; and is one of the administrators of Health Wonk Review, a bi-weekly health policy carnival. If you have a question for Julie, you can reach her at jferguson@lynchryan.com.

California Supreme Court Set To Address Workers’ Meal And Rest Break Rights

Thursday, May 27th, 2010

W-F BlogThe California Supreme Court is expected to render a decision in the Brinker v. Superior Court case later this year that will answer critical legal questions about the meal and rest break rights of hourly workers in California.  At issue in the case is when and under what circumstances workers are entitled under California law to rest and meal breaks.

Though the case was originally filed as a class action, and the appeal involved the trial court’s order granting class certification to a group of 5,500 restaurant workers, the Supreme Court’s decision will necessarily address questions that will have an impact on individual meal and rest break cases as well.  Commentators from across the political spectrum agree Brinker is one of the most important labor cases pending before the California Supreme Court today.

The case is important to workers because the Court of Appeal’s decision severely limited the rights of workers to obtain damages for missed meal and rest breaks.  The Court’s conclusions of law were broad-ranging and quite friendly to employers.  It held:

(1) while employers cannot impede, discourage or dissuade employees from taking rest periods, they need only provide, not ensure, rest periods are taken; (2) employers need only authorize and permit rest periods every four hours or major fraction thereof and they need not, where impracticable, be in the middle of each work period; (3) employers are not required to provide a meal period for every five consecutive hours worked; (4) while employers cannot impede, discourage or dissuade employees from taking meal periods, they need only provide them and not ensure they are taken; and (5) while employers cannot coerce, require or compel employees to work off the clock, they can only be held liable for employees working off the clock if they knew or should have known they were doing so. We further conclude that because the rest and meal breaks need only be “made available” and not “ensured,” individual issues predominate and, based upon the evidence presented to the trial court, they are not amenable to class treatment.

These conclusions, if adopted as state law by the Supreme Court, would effectively deny workers the right to use class actions to recover wages for missed meal and rest breaks in California.  Further, the adoption of these conclusions by California’s highest court would make it harder than ever before for individual workers to obtain relief for missed meal and rest breaks.

The restaurant workers have asked the Supreme Court to decide a number of key issues of law:

•    Does a California employer need to relieve employees of all duties so they can take meal and rest breaks or simply make them “available”?
•    Can the employer simply make meal and rest breaks available to their employees at any time during a shift, or must the rest and meal break be provided within a certain number of hours of beginning a work shift?
•    When and how frequently must an employer provide meal and rest breaks to its employees?
•    In wage and hour class action cases, can workers rely on statistical data to show a class-wide pattern of meal and rest break violations or are the factual issues always too individualized for class treatment?

The answers to these questions are of great interest to labor groups and business advocates alike, and battle lines were quickly drawn. A mere three days after the Court of Appeal issued its decision in Brinker, the California Labor Commissioner, under Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, issued a memorandum entitled “Binding Court Ruling on Meal and Rest Period Requirements” instructing all California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (“DLSE”) employees to adopt the perspective laid out in the Brinker appellate decision.

The Labor Commissioner virtually ignored other California appellate decisions more favorable to workers’ rights, and instead relied on federal court decisions interpreting California’s meal and rest break laws.  In Cicairos v. Summit Logistics, Inc. (2005) 133 Cal.App.4th 94, for example, California’s Third District Court of Appeal had decided that employers have “an affirmative obligation to ensure that workers are actually relieved of all duty [for meal breaks].”

The Third District’s decision in Cicairos was directly supported by a prior interpretation of the law issued during Governor Gray Davis’s administration by the DLSE.

Almost immediately after the Labor Commissioner issued its binding memorandum, the California Labor Federation responded with biting criticism of Labor Commissioner Angela Bradstreet’s directive.  “The Federation is deeply concerned that your hasty publication of this unbalanced and flawed analysis will undermine California workers’ rights to meal and rest breaks.”

The Labor Commissioner has since withdrawn its binding memorandum, replacing it with one that still plainly sides with the Court of Appeal’s restrictive reading of workers’ meal and rest break rights.  The Schwarzenegger administration is clearly hopeful the Supreme Court will uphold the severe restrictions set out by the appellate court.

A decision in Brinker will have an immediate impact on pending lawsuits, particularly meal and rest break class actions.  Whether the Supreme Court ultimately backs the employer-friendly logic of the decision under review or adopts the worker protections set out in Cicairos, attorneys representing both employees and employers undoubtedly will have clearer guidance on the law.

Finally, many employee rights advocates are certain, or at least very hopeful, that the California Supreme Court’s decision will not result in a substantial impairment of an individual employee’s right to meal and rest breaks.  The larger and more immediate concern is that Brinker could seriously impair the ability of workers to sue their employer collectively for failing to provide appropriate meal and rest breaks.  If the Supreme Court makes it more difficult to sue on a class-wide basis for meal and rest break violations, most violations will go unchallenged in court.  Labor advocates are counting on the Supreme Court to render a decision that protects the rights of California workers to use the class action process to vindicate these important wage and hour rights.

About the Author: Patrick Kitchin is a labor rights attorney with offices in San Francisco and Alameda, California.  He has represented thousands of employees in both individual and class action cases involving violations of California and federal labor laws since founding his firm in 1999.  According to retail experts and the media, his wage and hour class actions against Polo Ralph Lauren, Gap, Banana Republic, and Chico’s led to substantial changes in the retail industry’s labor practices in California. Patrick is a 1992 graduate of The University of Michigan Law School and is personally and professionally committed to the protection of workers’ rights everywhere.

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