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Schwarzenegger moves to break up food fight

After critics complain, the Govenator eases up on a business-friendly proposal to relax the rules for the timing of workers' lunch breaks.

Lunch break rules aren't going to change in California this year, after all.

In a filing Monday, the administration of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said it planned to hold hearings in February on a proposal to alter meal period regulations. Among other things, the proposal would allow lunch breaks to take place an hour later than the current deadline.

As part of Schwarzenegger's bid to make California friendlier to businesses, the state's Division of Labor Standards Enforcement moved earlier this month to institute the new rules as an "emergency regulation." Under that request, new guidelines for lunch breaks could have gone into effect by the end of the year. But after receiving criticism over the regulation and the way it was proposed, the division withdrew the request for emergency action, slowing the process.

Dean Fryer, spokesman for the division, said it received a number of comments claiming that the emergency rules process did not provide enough time for public comment, a period previously set to expire Dec. 15. "We felt that's an important part of rule making," he said.

The division also tweaked wording of the proposal that had drawn fire from Democratic leaders. State Assemblyman Paul Koretz said language in the original plan allowed employers simply to inform workers of their right to a lunch break rather than actually provide one.

The division disagreed with Koretz but nonetheless changed its wording to clarify that employers may inform workers about their rights as a "further precaution," beyond required criteria. One of those criteria is that the employer "makes the meal period available to the employee and affords the opportunity to take it."

The language related to informing employees about their rights addresses a problem facing employers, according to the division: Under current state law, if a worker refuses to take meal breaks, his or her employer is vulnerable to litigation.

Currently, California employers must provide a 30-minute meal period by the fifth hour of the workday. But the division argues that this deadline stems from a misguided interpretation of labor rules, which ultimately is leading employers to force workers to take meal breaks when they don't necessarily want them.

Another proposed change is designed to reduce litigation costs related to payments employers must make for failing to provide meal or rest periods. The new regulation could go into effect in March, Fryer said.