A San Diego judge's ruling raises the stakes in a lawsuit against Apple that accuses the tech giant of failing to provide its hourly workers with timely meal and rest breaks without compensating them with an extra hour's pay.
San Diego Superior Court Judge Ronald S. Prager on Monday certified the lawsuit as a class action, expanding the plaintiffs to nearly 21,000 current and former hourly retail and corporate Apple employees over a four-year period.
That raises the ante from a small amount of money for the four named plaintiffs to potentially millions of dollars covering everyone from store workers to secretaries.
"With that number of employees, it could be pretty significant," said Ruth Silver Taube, an expert in wage laws at Santa Clara University's Katharine and George Alexander Community Law Center.
Apple, based in Cupertino, declined to comment.
Jeffrey Hogue, one of the lawyers representing the plaintiffs, said, "We don't want to comment at this time. We're just happy they got certified and we believe we will ultimately prevail."
The lawsuit, which seeks a jury trial, covers the period from December 2007 to August 2012. Judge Prager ruled that a class action "is the only feasible method to fairly and efficiently adjudicate these claims," given the high cost of filing a lawsuit compared with a small amount of recovery for each individual.
The plaintiffs provided evidence that Apple's policy gave workers a meal break after the first five hours of working, rather than during that period as required under California labor law, the judge noted, adding that they also produced evidence that Apple's scheduling policy before Aug. 1, 2012, made taking meal and rest breaks "extremely difficult."
Employees were not compensated with an extra hour of pay for missed meal periods and breaks as required by California labor law and were also given inaccurate itemized wage statements, according to the suit.
Additionally, employees who quit or were dismissed were not given final paychecks in a timely manner as required by law, the suit alleges.
Apple's rules against discussing working conditions "allow Apple to invoke fear" in workers that "if they so much as discuss the various labor policies, they run the risk of being fired, sued or disciplined," the suit alleges.
Silver Taube, who supervises a Workers Rights clinic at the Community Law Center, called the ruling "quite an accomplishment for the plaintiff's lawyers. "It's very difficult to get class certification these day."
But the violations that Apple is accused of are common, she said. The center recently tallied 1,051 Labor Commission judgments recorded in Santa Clara County Superior Court against companies for similar violations. "So it is pretty widespread. There's also policies that don't conform with the law," she said.
The amounts involved for each worker "may not seem significant to some people, but when you are a low-wage worker and living paycheck to paycheck, it is significant," she said.
Contact Pete Carey at 408-920-5419. Follow him on Twitter.com/petecarey.