The Oregon AFL-CIO has weighed in with a friend-of-the-court brief on a Multnomah County civil suit against Les Schwab Tire Centers over its employees’ half-hour meal breaks.

The union in late October filed its 24-page brief, with another 46 pages of exhibits attached, in support of Michael Palmateer, a former Les Schwab Tire Center employee. Palmateer alleges the tire company “routinely failed to provide” its employees with 30-minute meal breaks for every six to eight hours worked.

Les Schwab Tire Centers, headquartered in Bend, and its affiliates named in the suit denied the allegations in a filing in July. A circuit court judge in November denied the company’s motion to dismiss part of the claim, a question of what responsibility the employer has to ensure its employees take their breaks.

Every employee clocks in and out of their lunch breaks, so the company knows what it owes those employees in overtime for their shorted lunch break, the suit states. The suit seeks unpaid wages, along with interest and other expenses. Palmateer’s lawyer Jennifer Palmquist also asked the court to certify the suit as a class action, meaning it could affect hundreds of other Les Schwab employees and former employees.

Lawyers with Perkins Coie LLP representing Les Schwab Tire Centers argued in a brief that under Oregon law employers are obligated only to provide a half-hour meal break, not guarantee that employees take that break.

Case law from Oregon’s federal district court holds that employers are not required to police their employees’ breaks, according to the Les Schwab motion filed in August. It states that forcing employers to guarantee meal breaks could result in some employees purposely clocking in after 29 minutes and claiming overtime pay for the entire 30 minutes, on the theory that employers must pay the entire half-hour if the employee is shorted even one minute.

Likewise, attorneys for Les Schwab argued, a 30-minute guaranteed break “would ignore workplace realities, such as the fact that many employees do not check their watches before clocking in and out to ensure that they take breaks of precisely 30 minutes.”

In its brief in support of Palmateer’s claim, the Oregon AFL-CIO argued that Oregon law gives employers a duty “to support its employees health and safety by ensuring they take the minimal meal break required under the law.”

Tom Chamberlain, president of the Oregon AFL-CIO, on Monday said the organization, a federation of labor unions, in this case intervened to protect the interests of non-union workers. Although lunch breaks may seem a mundane issue, a decision for Les Schwab in this case could impact workers across the state, he said.

“If employees have to administer their own lunch breaks, they probably won’t get lunch breaks,” he said. Few workers would be first to take a break in a busy setting like a Les Schwab garage bay if left to their own initiative, Chamberlain said.

Palmquist said the case may go to trial in fall 2018.

— Reporter: 541-617-7815, jditzler@bendbulletin.com

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