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Federal, not state law, applies to offshore oil platform employee’s meal and rest period claims

By Kathleen Kapusta, J.D.

That the FLSA did not offer protections comparable to California law did not mean there was a gap in federal law that state law could fill, the appeals court reasoned.

Reversing on interlocutory appeal the district court’s order declining to dismiss an employee’s claims that his employer violated California’s wage and hour laws by failing to provide adequate meal and rest periods to workers on offshore oil platforms, the Ninth Circuit found that because the FLSA addresses meal and rest periods, there was no gap in the applicable federal law and California’s laws could not be adopted as surrogate federal law on the Outer Continental Shelf. The fact that the FLSA is not as protective of workers as California law “does not mean there is a gap in federal law that state law may fill,” the court observed (Mauia v. Petrochem Insulation, Inc., July 20, 2021, Christen, M.).

Wage-hour claims. Petrochem provides services to drilling operations located off the coast of California on the OCS. The employee, an onsite project manager/superintendent for scaffolding projects on offshore oil platforms, was an hourly worker who worked shifts of 12 hours or more. He sued Petrochem claiming its practices of providing only one meal period after the start of the sixth hour of his shifts, and only two meal periods per 12-hour shift, violated California law.

Lower court proceedings. Moving to dismiss, Petrochem argued that California wage and hour laws did not apply on the OCS because the FLSA addresses meal and rest periods, leaving no gap for California law to fill. The district court, however, denied the company’s motion. Finding that federal law did not address the employee’s claims, the lower court reasoned that neither the FLSA nor its implementing regulations address meal or rest periods because the federal regulations only concern how and when meal and rest breaks must be compensated as work time and do not require that employers provide meal and rest breaks. Recognizing that trial courts in the Ninth Circuit are split on this issue, the district court certified its order for interlocutory appeal.

Parker Drilling. The Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, the Ninth Circuit began, extends the U.S. Constitution and federal law to the OCS to the same extent as if the OCS were an area of federal jurisdiction located within a state. Further, in Parker Drilling Management Services v. Newton, the Supreme Court explained: “The OCSLA denies States any interest in or jurisdiction over the OCS, and it deems the adjacent State’s laws to be federal law ‘[t]o the extent that they are applicable and not inconsistent with’ other federal law.”

Further, in resolving a circuit split on how to determine whether a state law is applicable and not inconsistent with federal law, the Court held that “the question is whether federal law has already addressed the relevant issue; if so, state law addressing the same issue would necessarily be inconsistent with existing federal law and cannot be adopted as surrogate federal law.”

FLSA requirements. Turning to whether federal law has already addressed the relevant issue here, the Ninth Circuit noted that while the FLSA does not require that employers provide meal or rest periods, its implementing regulations address both by specifying that all rest periods and non-bona fide meal periods must be compensated. The FLSA, the court noted, “encourages but does not require, that employers provide meal breaks. And it requires employers to compensate employees for any rest breaks they are provided.”

No gap. Although not as protective of workers as California law, the FLSA’s implementing regulations “expressly contemplate meal and rest periods, address how and when these period must be compensated as work time, and provide a remedy to employees whose employers fail to comply,” the court observed, finding “no gap in federal law for state law to fill.”

Rejecting the employee’s contention that the FLSA’s regulations were not applicable to his meal and rest-period claims because they fell under a part of a subchapter relating to hours worked, the court pointed out that Parker Drilling does not require a direct federal counterpart. Rather, “it requires that we ask whether federal law addressed the relevant issue, not whether federal law addresses it in the same way.” Thus, because the FLSA addresses meal and rest periods, California law, said the court, does not provide the rule of decision for meal and rest-period claims arising on the OCS.