California law requires employers to provide a 30-minute meal period for every five hours worked. This means that an employee who works more than five hours is entitled to one 30-minute meal break, and an employee who works more than 10 hours is entitled to two 30-minute meal breaks. Meal breaks are unpaid, and the employee must be relieved of all duty and allowed to leave the premises. When an employee is not provided with a legally-compliant meal period – whether it was missed entirely, shorter than 30 minutes, or provided too late in the shift – the employee is entitled to a penalty payment of one hour of pay.
Many employers round employee time punches to the nearest 10- or 15-minute increments. For example, if an employee clocks out for lunch at 12:00 p.m., and clocks back in at 12:23, the timekeeping software will round the meal break up from 23 minutes up to 30 minutes. The meal break will appear compliant with California law, even though the employee received less than the required 30 minutes for lunch.
On February 25, the California Supreme Court ruled that employers are not permitted to round an employee’s time punches for purposes of recording meal breaks. The Court handed down the ruling in a class action case brought by nurse recruiters who work for AMN Services LLC, a healthcare staffing company. In the opinion, the Court said that California law requires precise timekeeping for meal breaks and that subtracting even a few minutes is contrary to the important health and safety reasons for providing breaks, such as reducing stress, reducing workplace accidents and enabling employees to take care of important personal tasks.
Writing for the majority, Justice Liu wrote: “Within a 30-minute timeframe, a few minutes can make a significant difference when it comes to eating an unhurried meal, scheduling a doctor’s appointment, giving instructions to a babysitter, refreshing oneself with a cup of coffee or simply resting before going back to work.” The Court further ruled that if the employer’s records show a meal break violation – i.e., a missed, short or late meal – this creates a presumption that the employee is entitled to penalty pay. To avoid liability, the employer must rebut the presumption by showing that the employer was provided the opportunity to take the break and chose not to take it.
If you believe you have been subject to wage-and-hour violations at work, including missed meal or rest breaks, contact Teukolsky Law today for a consultation.
Lauren Teukolsky is the founder and owner of Teukolsky Law, A Professional Corporation.