Meal and Rest Breaks - Revisited

With July beginning, now is a perfect time for employers to review their meal and rest break policies. While readers may feel like they understand these regulations better than most non-employment attorneys, given the high penalties associated with violations, and the California Supreme Court’s ruling in April that the payments for violations are “wages,” increasing the statute of limitations periods up to four years, it is well worth it for employers to revisit these issues periodically to ensure compliance.

Below are excerpts from the DLSE’s website providing answers to frequently asked questions about employer’s obligations to provide meal and rest breaks.

Meal Breaks:

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

A. 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.

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

A. 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.

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

A. 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.

Rest Breaks:

Q. What are the basic requirements for rest periods under California law?

A. California employees covered by the rest period provisions of the Industrial Welfare Commission Wage Orders must be provided with a net 10-minute paid rest period for every four hours worked or major fraction thereof. Insofar as is practicable, the rest period should be in the middle of the work period. If an employer fails to provide an employee a rest period, the employer shall pay the employee one hour of pay at the employee’s regular rate of pay for each workday that the rest period is not provided.

Q. Must the rest periods always be in the middle of each four-hour work period?

A. Rest breaks must be given as close to the middle of the four-hour work period as is practicable. If the nature or circumstances of the work prevent the employer from giving the break at the preferred time, the employee must still receive the required break, but may take it at another point in the work period.

Q. Is it permissible if I choose to work through both of my rest periods so that I can leave my job 20 minutes early?

A. No, working through your rest period does not entitle you to leave work early or arrive late.

Q. Can my employer require that I stay on the work premises during my rest period?

A. Yes, your employer can require that you stay on the premises during your rest break. Since you are being compensated for the time during your rest period, your employer can require that you remain on its premises. And under most situations, the employer is required to provide suitable resting facilities that shall be available for employees during working hours in an area separate from the toilet rooms.

Q. Can I have additional rest breaks if I am a smoker?

A. No, under California law rest period time is based on the total hours worked daily, and only one ten-minute rest period need be authorized for every four hours of work or major fraction thereof.

Q. When I need to use the toilet facilities during my work period does that count as my ten minute rest break?

No, the 10-minute rest period is not designed to be exclusively for use of toilet facilities as evidenced by the fact that the Industrial Welfare Commission requires suitable resting facilities be in an area "separate from toilet rooms." The intent of the Industrial Welfare Commission regarding rest periods is clear: the rest period is not to be confused with or limited to breaks taken by employees to use toilet facilities. This conclusion is required by a reading of the provisions of IWC Orders, Section 12, Rest Periods, in conjunction with the provisions of Section 13(B), Change Rooms And Resting Facilities, which requires that "Suitable resting facilities shall be provided in an area separate from the toilet rooms and shall be available to employees during work hours."

Allowing employees to use toilet facilities during working hours does not meet the employer’s obligation to provide rest periods as required by the IWC Orders. This is not to say, of course, that employers do not have the right to reasonably limit the amount of time an employee may be absent from his or her work station; and, it does not indicate that an employee who chooses to use the toilet facilities while on an authorized break may extend the break time by doing so. DLSE policy simply prohibits an employer from requiring that employees count any separate use of toilet facilities as a rest period.
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