Articles Posted in Meal Periods

In 2012, the Supreme Court gave employers and employees alike clear rules about meal and rest breaks in California. The Court held that employers were required to provide employees with a full, thirty minute, uninterrupted meal period if an employee works five or more hours in a shift. In the alternative, employees may agree – in writing – to waive their meal period. If the employer does not abide by those rules, it is liable to the employees for premium pay. The Court also warned employers that they were not allowed to pressure employees into working through their meal break.

But what about rest breaks? In California, employees who work a typical eight-hour shift are entitled to two paid ten minute breaks. The California Supreme Court just clarified that the rest breaks must be duty free and employers cannot require their employees to remain “on-call” during their rest breaks.

In Augustus v. ABM Security Services, Inc. (2016), 2 Cal.5th 257, the plaintiffs were security guards who worked for a security company. The employer required its employees to keep their pagers and radio phones on at all times, including during rest breaks. The employees were also required to remain vigilant and respond to calls when needs arose. The Court held that the employees were entitled to duty-free rest breaks – that employers “must relieve employees of all duties and relinquish control over how employees spend their time.” The Court also held that employers could not require their employees to remain “on-call” during their rest breaks because if an employee is on call, they do not have the freedom to use their rest break for their own purposes.

The California Supreme Court has laid clear, after much confusion, the proper standard by which employers must provide their employees with meal periods, imposing an affirmative burden to completely relieve their employees from duty so that the employees may take full, thirty-minute, uninterrupted meal periods. If the employer fails to meet its obligation to do so, the damaged employee is eligible for a meal period premium of an hour’s worth of wages. In addition, the Court has clarified the standard by which meal period and rest break class actions may be certified and laid forth the appropriate standard for the timing of meal and rest periods.

In Brinker, the Court points out that, if an employee works five or more hours in a shift, the employer must do one of three things: (1) afford the employee an off duty meal period; (2) reach a voluntary agreement with an employee on a meal period waiver if one hour or less will end the shift; or (3) obtain written agreement to an on-duty meal period if circumstances permit. If it does none of the three, it is liable for premium pay.

In addition, the Court makes it clear that employers may not skirt their obligations, emphasizing that “an employer may not undermine a formal policy of providing meal breaks by pressuring employees to perform their duties in ways that omit breaks.” The only steps an employer need not take are to “police” breaks and affirmatively ensure that no work is done.

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