Although California’s meal and rest break rules are intended to give hourly employees time to take breaks during their shifts, problems can arise if employees skip their breaks or if employers don’t offer them. In this episode of The Workplace, CalChamber Executive Vice President and General Counsel Erika Frank discusses meals and breaks at the office with attorney Michael Nader, shareholder with Ogletree Deakins, who focuses his practice on defending wage-and-hour class actions. In the podcast, they discuss meal and rest break rules and the importance of tracking employees’ breaks to protect employers against class action lawsuits.
Employers Must Provide
California’s Labor Code outlines the rules employers must follow when it comes to providing nonexempt employees their meal and rest breaks.
For meal breaks, Nader explains, it is important for the employee to be exempt from all duty and allowed to leave the premises if he/she wishes. “The employer must relinquish control over the employees’ activities,” he says.
There is no one purpose for meal breaks at the office; it is an unpaid break for hourly employees to spend however they choose.
“Under California law, a meal break really has nothing to do with lunch,” Nader explains to Frank. “It is really the opportunity to provide the employee with duty-free uninterrupted time where they are free to leave the premises. If the employee wishes to eat during that period, that is fine. If they wish to do something else during that time, that is fine as well.”
Similarly, with rest breaks, employees can use these paid, on-the-clock, net 10-minute periods any way they like.
“Employers are required to authorize and permit nonexempt employees to take rest breaks,” adds Nader. “Rest breaks are required to fall in the middle of work periods insofar as practical.”
Why Tracking Breaks Matters
When employees decide to skip their meal and rest breaks, legal issues can sometimes arise—often in the form of class action lawsuits.
To protect employers from class actions, it is important to track employees’ breaks and encourage employees to take their breaks for meals and rest.
“Employers should have robust, detailed policies demonstrating to the employees that rest breaks are provided and that they are expected to take them,” Nader explains.
In the case that employees may be skipping their meal or rest breaks to continue working, it is key for the employer to first determine why the break wasn’t taken and then determine whether a premium payment is owed. Most important, in all circumstances, employers should retain documentation in the event an employee ever disputes the reasons a break was not taken.
“A lot of employees choose to work through rest breaks and they never let the company know,” Nader tells Frank. “While the company is fully authorizing and permitting rest breaks, employees may regularly not be taking them. That is where the company wants to make extra efforts to show that they encourage and expect employees to take their rest breaks and to try to build documentation, either through an attestation process or some other way that employees can confirm that they at least received some opportunity to take rest breaks.”
Nader concludes the episode by reading a poem he wrote and dedicated to the unsung heroes of California—the employers and job creators—entitled “Breaks in Paradise.”