By Joseph Ditzler

The Bulletin

Les Schwab Tire Centers counts as a partial win the latest round in the legal fight over its employee meal-break practices, even though a judge denied a move by company lawyers to dismiss a key part of the lawsuit, a Les Schwab spokesman said Wednesday.

Multnomah County Circuit Judge Judith Matarazzo in November denied Les Schwab’s attorney’s motion for partial summary judgment. The judge wrote that she agreed with the company’s interpretation of one element of the law, but that the case should proceed on other questions.

The lawsuit, filed by former Les Schwab Tire Centers employee Michael Palmateer in June, seeks unpaid wages due him for meal breaks shorter than 30 minutes and overtime for weeks during which he worked through shortened breaks. Palmateer’s lawyers also asked the court to certify Palmateer’s suit as a class action, with the potential to include hundreds if not thousands of employees and former employees, and millions of dollars.

Matarazzo, while denying the company’s motion, agreed with its lawyers, who argued that employers need not guarantee a meal break, or, in other words, police their workers to ensure they take those breaks. Employers need only provide their workers with a meal-break opportunity, Les Schwab attorneys argued.

“We’re happy that the court agreed with our position,” said Dale Thompson, spokesman for Les Schwab Tire Centers, based in Bend. “Our hope is that the court’s view would reinforce what the law says, and that there really is no case here.”

Thompson said seasonal tire changes create a heavy demand and a fast pace at Les Schwab Tire Centers. But the company wants its hourly workers to take their breaks, he said.

“It’s hard work and they need to sustain the work they do. There are long hours during the spring and winter change overs,” Thompson said.

But Palmateer’s lawyer Jennifer Palmquist, of Portland, on Wednesday said the judge left plenty of room to maneuver, basically saying the question of whether Les Schwab provided a “legally compliant” break period is still on the table.

“Rather,” Matarazzo wrote in her order, “the court recognizes that there are a multitude of facts to determine if an employer interfered with, coerced or otherwise encouraged an employee to take a break period of less than the length required by law, or failed to notify an employee” of his or her right to a 30-minute meal break.

Oregon law requires a half-hour meal break after six hours of work, with some exceptions. If the employee is “not relieved of all duties for 30 continuous minutes during the meal period, the employer must pay the employee for the entire 30-minute period,” the law states.

In her order, Matarazzo cites the law on meal breaks, including the exceptions that permit an employer to sidestep the employees’ 30-minute break.

“It’s right out of the statute. Did they do any of these things? No,” Palmquist said Wednesday. “That’s not winning.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7815,