Private Investigators Can Sue Over Lunch Breaks

     (CN) – An investigations company charged with vetting candidates for federal jobs must go to trial to fight claims that it deprives workers of lunch breaks and other certain rights under California labor laws, a federal judge ruled.
     Lead plaintiff Catalina Ricaldai accused her former employer, U.S. Investigations Services, of regularly blocking its investigators from taking lunch breaks, not paying them for overtime work and not paying them on time, all against a backdrop of heavy workloads and tight deadlines.
     Employees allegedly worked out of their homes and with a company car, compiling data for reports based on records and interviews. They were expected to work 40 hours a week, eight hours per day, and had deadlines to close investigations.
     Investigators were trained to “build their own daily work schedule based on the work they had to complete for their investigations, not based on a particular schedule,” according to the court’s summary of Ricaldai’s statement.
     Ricaldai said the company handbook forbids employees to “start work early, finish work late, work during a meal break or perform any other extra or overtime work,” unless authorized to do so, but she said the company nevertheless pressured her to work, unrecorded, during meal periods. As a result, she never took the 30-minute, “duty-free” meal period, according to the complaint.
     “Specifically, Ricaldai alleges that during a 2003 field training for ‘update investigations,’ her trainer told her ‘to pack her lunch because they would not have time to stop and eat lunch,'” Pregerson wrote. “Throughout the training period, Ricaldai and her trainer did in fact ‘eat lunch while they were looking at the paperwork and reviewing the interviews they had done.”
     U.S. Investigations Services moved for summary judgment on five of Ricaldai’s six claims, but Pregerson mostly refused.
     The class can advance claims that the company pressured staff into working during lunch and did not pay them on time in violation of California’s Unfair Business Practices law, according to the court.
     “Ricaldai offers evidence that she was implicitly trained to take working lunches, expressly told that personal errands were prohibited without prior authorization, specifically directed to fill her entire day in each geographic area with job duties, and correspondingly discouraged from taking time off,” Pregerson wrote.
     “A rational trier of fact could conclude that USIS pressured her to take working lunches instead of duty-free meal periods, in violation of California meal period law,” he added, abbreviating the company’s name.
     Ricaldai can also pursue claims that USIS failed to list overtime rates on wage statements, paid incorrect and reduced overtime rates, and forced her to “perform mathematical computations to determine whether her paychecks were accurate,” Pregerson said.
     “A rational trier of fact could believe Ricaldai, and conclude that she suffered an actual injury from having to make these calculations, and from not knowing that she was being underpaid,” the decision states.
     USIS can claim at trial that any wage miscalculations were good-faith mistakes, Pregerson said.
     “Even if the court were convinced that any wage statement meal period omissions were made in good faith, it is still entirely unclear whether USIS acted in good faith with regard to the alleged overtime errors,” the ruling states. “A reasonable trier of fact could, therefore, conclude, as Ricaldai alleges, that USIS ‘knowingly and intentionally failed to provide’ Ricaldai with accurate and itemized wage statements, ‘and did so in order to conceal its liability from Ricaldai.'”
     The court did granted USIS summary judgment on the class’s attempt to enforce the Private Attorney’s General Act.

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