When Are "On-Duty" Meal Periods Permitted?

My recent post about Bufil v. Dollar Financial Group, Inc. (filed April 14, 2008, ordered published May 13, 2008) made a lot of readers ask, “When can an employer have an employee enter into an ‘on-duty’ meal period agreement?” 

As any reader of our blog knows, pursuant to Labor Code section 226.7 and the Wage Orders (for example Wage Order 4-2001, section 11(b)), each failure to provide the specified meal period entitles the employee to receive an additional compensation premium equal to one hour of pay.

The Wage Order provides for an “on duty” meal period that is an exception to the required meal break if the following requirements are met:

An "on duty" meal period shall be permitted only when the nature of the work prevents an employee from being relieved of all duty and when by written agreement between the parties an on-the-job paid meal period is agreed to. The written agreement shall state that the employee may, in writing, revoke the agreement at any time.

Wage Order No. 4-2001(a)(emphasis added). Unfortunately, the definition of the “nature of the work” is not clear, and the only real guidance California employers have on this issue is a Department of Labor Standards Enforcement (“DLSE”) opinion letter. Click here to download the opinion letter.

In the opinion letter, the DLSE addressed the issue of whether a shift manager in a fast food restaurant working the night shift would be allowed to take a “on duty” meal period. The DLSE began its analysis in stating that the off duty meal period is the default requirement, and any exceptions to this requirement should be narrowly construed. 

The DLSE set forth factors it considered in determining whether the nature of the work prevents the employee from taking an off-duty meal period. The factors included:

  • the type of work
  • the availability of other employees to relieve the employee during a meal period
  • the potential consequences to the employer if the employee is relieved of all duty
  • the ability of the employer to anticipate and minimize these staffing issues such as by scheduling employees in a manner that would allow the employee to take an off-duty meal break and
  • whether the “work product or process” would be destroyed or damaged if the employee were given an off-duty meal period. 

The DLSE concluded that based on the facts presented in the situation of the fast food restaurant, it did not understand why the nature of the work in the restaurant prevented the shift manager from being relieved of all duties for 30 minutes. 

As this issue has yet to be addressed by the courts (maybe the court in Bufil will provide some guidance), employers should follow the limited analysis set forth in the DLSE opinion letter, even though the DLSE opinion letter is not  binding on the courts. 

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