Meal Periods

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What are the basic requirements for meal periods under California law?

Under California law (IWC Orders and Labor Code Section 512), employees must be provided with no less than a thirty-minute meal period when the work period is more than five hours (more than six hours for employees in the motion picture industry covered by IWC Order 12-2001).Unless the employee is relieved of all duty during the entire thirty-minute meal period and is free to leave the employer's premises, the meal period shall be considered "on duty," counted as hours worked, and paid for at the employee's regular rate of pay. An "on duty" meal period will be permitted only when the nature of the work prevents the employee from being relieved of all duty and when by written agreement between the employer and employee an on-the-job meal period is agreed to. The test of whether the nature of the work prevents an employee from being relieved of all duty is an objective one. An employer and employee may not agree to an on-duty meal period unless, based on objective criteria, any employee would be prevented from being relieved of all duty based on the necessary job duties. Some examples of jobs that fit this category are a sole worker in a coffee kiosk, a sole worker in an all-night convenience store, and a security guard stationed alone at a remote site.

How does an employer satisfy its obligation to provide a meal period according to the law?

An employer is not required to ensure that no work is performed.  However, an employer must do more than simply make a meal period “available.”  In general, to satisfy its obligation to provide a meal period, an employer must actually relieve employees of all duty, relinquish control over their activities, permit them a reasonable opportunity to take an uninterrupted 30-minute break (in which they are free to come and go as they please), and must not impede or discourage employees from taking their meal period.  (For employees in the health care industry covered by IWC Orders 4 or 5, however, minor exceptions exist as to the employee’s right to leave the employment premises during an off-duty meal period.)  Employers may not undermine a formal policy of providing meal periods by pressuring employees to perform their duties in ways that omit breaks (e.g., through a scheduling policy that makes taking breaks extremely difficult).  As the California Supreme Court has noted, “The wage orders and governing statute do not countenance an employer's exerting coercion against the taking of, creating incentives to forego, or otherwise encouraging the skipping of legally protected breaks.”  Which particular facts in any given case will satisfy the employer’s obligation to provide bona relief from all duty may vary from industry to industry.  See Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court (2012) 53 Cal.4th 1004.

What are the timing requirements for when any required first or second meal period must be provided during the workday?

In general, when an employee works for a work period of more than five hours, a meal period must be provided no later than the end of the employee’s fifth hour of work (in other words, no later than the start of the employee’s sixth hour of work).  When an employee works for a period of more than 10 hours, a second meal period must be provided no later than the end of the employee’s tenth hour of work (in other words, no later than the start of the employee’s eleventh hour of work).  The foregoing rules are subject to certain waivers by mutual consent (as explained above), and different rules apply to employees in the motion picture industry.  See Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court (2012) 53 Cal.4th 1004.

My employer is not allowing me to take a meal period. Is there anything I can do about this situation?

Yes, there is something you can do if you are covered by the meal period requirements of the law. If your employer fails to provide the required meal period, you are to be paid one hour of pay at your regular rate of compensation (this is referred to as meal period premium pay) for each workday that the meal period is not provided. If your employer fails to pay the additional one-hour's pay, you may file a wage claim with the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement.

If there is bona fide relief from all duty during a meal period and the employer relinquishes all control over the employee’s activities, but the employee then freely chooses to continue working, is the employer liable for meal period premium pay?

No, the employer would not be liable for meal period premium pay where there is bona fide relief from duty and relinquishment of employer control (and no discouragement or coercion from the employer against taking the meal period).  However, in this circumstance, an employer that knows or has reason to know an employee is performing work during the meal period owes compensation to the employee for the time worked (including any overtime hours that have accrued as a result of working through the meal period).  See Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court (2012) 53 Cal.4th 1004.

Is it permissible if I choose to work through my meal period so that I can leave my job 30 minutes early?

No, working through your meal period does not entitle you to leave work early prior to your scheduled quitting time. In order for an "on duty" meal period to be permitted under the Industrial Welfare Commission Wage Orders, the nature of the work must actually prevent the employee from being relieved of all duty, and there must be a written agreement that an on-the-job paid meal period is agreed to. Additionally, the written agreement must also state that the employee may, in writing, revoke the agreement at any time.

Can my employer require that I stay on its premises during my meal period?

Yes, your employer can require that you remain on its premises during your meal period, even if you are relieved of all work duties. However if that occurs, you are being denied your time for your own purposes and in effect remain under the employer's control and thus, the meal period must be paid. Minor exceptions to this general rule exist under IWC Order 5-2001 regarding healthcare workers. Pursuant to the Industrial Welfare Commission Wage Orders, if you are required to eat on the premises, a suitable place for that purpose must be designated. "Suitable" means a sheltered place with facilities available for securing hot food and drink or for heating food or drink, and for consuming such food and drink.

I regularly work an eight-hour shift. What can I do if my employer doesn't provide me with a meal period?

You can either file a wage claim with the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (the Labor Commissioner's Office), or you can file a lawsuit in court against your employer to recover the premium of one additional hour of pay at your regular rate of compensation for each workday that the meal period is not provided.

What is the applicable statute of limitations on filing a meal period claim?

In the case of Murphy v. Cole, the California Supreme Court held that the remedy for meal and rest period violations of "one additional hour of pay" under Labor Code section 226.7 is a wage subject to a three-year statute of limitations. Accordingly, a claim must be filed within three (3) years of the alleged meal period violation. See attached Division memoranda regarding the Court's decision.

What is the procedure that is followed after I file a wage claim?

After your claim is completed and filed with a local office of the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE), it will be assigned to a Deputy Labor Commissioner who will determine, based upon the circumstances of the claim and information presented, how best to proceed. Initial action taken regarding the claim can be referral to a conference or hearing, or dismissal of the claim.

If the decision is to hold a conference, the parties will be notified by mail of the date, time and place of the conference. The purpose of the conference is to determine the validity of the claim, and to see if the claim can be resolved without a hearing. If the claim is not resolved at the conference, the next step usually is to refer the matter to a hearing or dismiss it for lack of evidence.

At the hearing the parties and witnesses testify under oath, and the proceeding is recorded. After the hearing, an Order, Decision, or Award (ODA) of the Labor Commissioner will be served on the parties.

Either party may appeal the ODA to a civil court of competent jurisdiction. The court will set the matter for trial, with each party having the opportunity to present evidence and witnesses. The evidence and testimony presented at the Labor Commissioner's hearing will not be the basis for the court's decision. In the case of an appeal by the employer, DLSE may represent an employee who is financially unable to afford counsel in the court proceeding.

See the Policies and Procedures of Wage Claim Processing pamphlet for more detail on the wage claim procedure.

What can I do if I prevail at the hearing and the employer doesn't pay or appeal the Order, Decision, or Award?

When the Order, Decision, or Award (ODA) is in the employee's favor and there is no appeal, and the employer does not pay the ODA, the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE) will have the court enter the ODA as a judgment against the employer. This judgment has the same force and effect as any other money judgment entered by the court. Consequently, you may either try to collect the judgment yourself or you can assign it to DLSE.

What can I do if my employer retaliates against me because I asked him why we don't get a meal period?

If your employer discriminates or retaliates against you in any manner whatsoever, for example, he discharges you because you ask about not getting a meal period, object to what you believe to be an illegal practice, or because you file a claim or threaten to file a claim with the Labor Commissioner, you can file a discrimination/retaliation complaint with the Labor Commissioner's Office. In the alternative, you can file a lawsuit in court against your employer.

(Information From the Department of Industrial Relations Website)

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