California wage and hour laws are far stricter in California than in other areas of the country.  It’s important for managers not to make assumptions about their knowledge of the law or its applications.  Small businesses should consult an attorney to make sure they are in compliance with a widely litigated area of law.

Under California meal break law, employees who are not exempt from labor laws are entitled to a 30-minute uninterrupted, duty-free meal break if the employee works more than 5 hours in a workday.  Workers are also entitled to a 10-minute uninterrupted, duty-free rest breaks for every 4 hours worked (or whenever is “reasonable”).

Employers who fail to comply with the meal and rest break laws are required to pay you one extra hour of regular pay for each day on which a meal break violation occurred, and another extra hour of regular pay for each day on which a rest break violation occurred.

But is it easy for an employee to show that an employer violated meal and rest break laws?  Not really.

California’s Meal and Rest Break Laws

            The basics of the meal and rest break laws in California sounds simple.  Employers must provide workers a paid, uninterrupted, rest break for at least 10 consecutive minutes for every 4 hours worked.  The employer may require the employee to be on the premises during this time, just not be required to work. Cal. Lab. C. 226.7.

Furthermore, if an employee works over 5 hours in a day, he/she is entitled to a meal break of at least 30 consecutive minutes that must start before the end of the fifth hour of his/her shift. If an employee works over 10 hours in a day, he/she is entitled to a second meal break of at least 30 minutes that must start before the end of the tenth hour of his/her shift. Employers must allow employees to take their uninterrupted meal break off the premises, unless this requirement is waived pursuant to the rules below. Cal. Lab. C. 512.

However, the application of these laws can be complicated.  What if an employee chooses to take their lunch at their desk or work through lunch?  What if they are the only employee and must man the fort?  California has already contemplated these questions and there are some exceptions to these rules.

Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court Ruled that Employers Must Only Permit Workers to Take Meal and Rest Breaks-Not Require them to Take Breaks

Employees frequently decide it’s easier to sit at their workstations to eat and work or skip their rest breaks all together.  So, if an employer doesn’t require the employee to work through their meal or rest break, why should they be punished?

The Court agrees. In Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court, the court evaluated whether staff in a restaurant were denied meal and rest breaks when they voluntarily worked through their shifts so that they didn’t miss out on tips while they were on break.  The Court ruled that they key obligation for employers is to provide the above-described meal breaks.  Employers can provide meal breaks through policies that affirmatively tell employees that the meal and rest breaks are provided and through their work schedules. Having provided a policy, the issue is then whether employers must force employees to take their meal breaks. From there, the employer must not discourage the employee from taking their break.  They do not have to police whether an employee takes their meal or rest breaks.

Employers should have clear written policies providing for meal and rest breaks, train supervisors regarding meal and rest break compliance, and keep accurate records of when meal breaks are taken, and to consistently provide employees with meal and rest break certification forms.

Waiver of Meal and Rest Beal Provisions

Employers and Employees are permitted to waive the 30-minute meal period if:

  • The employee’s work does not exceed six hours in a shift, the meal period may be waived by mutual consent of both the employer and employee; and
  • The employee works more than 10 hours per day, the second meal period may be waived if the employee works no more than 12 hours that day.

It is advisable for an employer to memorialize such agreements in writing and the employee must have the opportunity to revoke the agreement at any time.

On-duty Meal Periods

“On-duty” meal periods occur when the nature of the work prevents an employee from being relieved of all duties for more than 6 hours per day, the parties agree in writing to the on-duty meal period and the employee is paid for the on-duty meal period.

The written agreement must contain a revocation clause applicable at any time. Furthermore, the employee must be allowed to consume his or her meal while performing his or her duties. According to the Department of Labor Standards Enforcement (“DLSE”), employees cannot take two on-duty meal periods in one day.

Recordkeeping requirements

Labor Code Section 226 requires that employers keep payroll records showing the daily hours worked by employees. The code also requires that the records be kept for at least three years.

If an employer fails to maintain accurate time records, the employee’s credible testimony of hours worked is sufficient to establish a wage claim. The burden is then on the employer to show that the hours claimed by the employee were not really worked.

Thus, it is important to keep records, either submitted by the employee or by timeclock.

Employer Obligations Regarding Meal and Rest Breaks

            In addition to the suggestions above, below are some tips to ensure compliance with meal and rest breaks and avoid employee disputes:

  • Distribute a policy update to all employees (and all new employees at the time of hiring) informing them of their rights to take meal and rest breaks and that it is their responsibility to ensure that they take them;
  • Require the employee to certify on their timesheets or at the end of each pay period that the employee has taken his or her meal and rest breaks.
  • Audit company record keeping practices to ensure that meal breaks are being properly recorded.
  • Review employee handbook and other policy manuals to ensure conformance with meal and rest break rules.
  • Review practices allowing employees to skip, or delay meal breaks and decide if its worth the risk to keep them.

If you need your policies reviewed, contact our office for a consultation.

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