Meal and Rest Periods
The laws regarding providing meal and rest periods to hourly employees has created a potential landmine for California employers in recent years. As an employer, it is important to balance your desire to maximize the productivity of your employees against the multitude of rules in California governing their wages and hours.
With respect to meal periods, California law generally requires that no employer shall require an employee to work for a work period of more than five (5) hours without a meal period of not less than 30 minutes, except that when a work period of not more than six (6) hours will complete the day's work, then the meal period may be waived by mutual consent of the employer and employee. The employee generally should be relieved of all duty during a 30 minute meal period. If the employee is not relieved of all duty during the 30 minute meal period, then the meal period is considered to be an "on duty" meal period and counted as time worked. An "on duty" meal period only is permitted when the nature of the work prevents an employee from being relieved of all duty and when by written agreement between the parties an on-the-job paid meal period is agreed to. Such a written agreement must state that the employee may, in writing, revoke the agreement at any time.
Importantly, some California courts have held that employers must require their hourly employees to take statutory meal periods or pay the employee an additional hour of pay at the employee's regular rate of pay for each such meal period missed. Thus, an employer may be exposed to meal period liability even where an industrious employee voluntarily elects to work through a meal period. The amount of liability can add up to a significant amount where an employee misses multiple meal periods or where meal periods are continually missed by multiple employees.
As for rest periods, California law generally requires employers to authorize and permit all employees to take rest periods, which insofar as practicable shall be in the middle of each work period. The authorized rest period time shall be based on the total hours worked daily at the rate of ten (10) minutes net rest time per four (4) hours or major fraction thereof. However, a rest period need not be authorized for employees whose total daily work time is less than three and one-half hours. Authorized rest period time shall be counted as hours worked for which there shall be no deduction from wages.
An employer may be liable to an employee for one-hour of pay at the employee's regular rate of pay for failure to authorize or permit the employee to take a statutory rest period. California courts have interpreted the requirement of the provision of rest periods differently from than of meal periods in that so long as the employer authorizes and permits the employee to take a required rest period, the employer has satisfied its obligations regardless of whether employee actually took the rest period.
Class action attorneys have used the meal and rest period rules to obtain significant judgments and settlements from California employers in recent year. In some cases, liability for meal and rest period violations can go back as much as four years. Employers should take measures to protect against such liability including having a sound written meal and rest period policy, making sure that the meal and rest period policy is enforced by, for example, making sure hourly employees take their meal periods, and by keeping time records showing when an employee takes a meal periods. Because of the complexity of this area of the law and the potential for significant exposure for mistakes, employers are encouraged to work with their labor attorneys to develop appropriate polices and procedures for ensuring compliance.
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