California Supreme Court Finally Clarifies Rules for Meal and Rest Periods

In a long-awaited ruling, the California Supreme Court has finally clarified the rules applicable to meal and rest periods for non-exempt employees. The Court concluded that employers are only required to provide meal and rest periods to employees, they are not, however, required to ensure that their employees actually take them. Here is a short synopsis of the Court’s conclusions.

Meal Periods Must be Provided Following Five Hours of Work
Employers are required to provide an “off-duty,” unpaid meal period to non-exempt employees following any shift in excess of five hours. An “off-duty” meal period means the employer relieves the employee of all duties during the meal period. Meal periods must last for at least 30-minutes.
Employers have flexibility concerning how the meal-period is scheduled, and do not have to provide the meal-period during the fifth hour of work. Instead, employers must simply provide their employees with a meal period no later than the end of the employee’s fifth hour of work. If the employee is working more than ten hours, then the employee is entitled to a second 30-minute meal period to be taken no later than the end of the employee’s tenth hour of work. The meal period may be scheduled any time within the employee’s shift so long as these time constraints are observed.
Even though employers are required to provide “off-duty” meal periods to their employees, they are not required to police their employees to ensure they do not work during the meal period or otherwise force their employees to take the meal period However, employers may not coerce or encourage employees to skip their meal period or take an “on-duty” meal period. If an employer does so, it is subject to a mandatory penalty equal to one additional hour of pay at the employee’s regular rate of pay.

In summary, employees can decide how to spend their meal period, but employers must allow them an uninterrupted, off-duty meal period of 30-minutes after any work period of more than five hours.

Rest Breaks Must be Provided During a Shift Longer Than 3.5 Hours.
Employers are also required to provide paid rest breaks to non-exempt employees who are scheduled to work more than 3.5 hours in a day. Employers must count rest periods as time worked, and must authorize and provide employees with a 10-minute rest in a 3.5 to 6 hour shift, 20 minutes rest in a shift longer than 6 hours but no more than 10 hours, and 30 minutes rest in a shift more than 10 hours but no more than 14 hours. Failing to account for the mandated rest periods in scheduling and assigning shifts may be considered a denial of the rest period, which could subject employers to a penalty (e.g., payment of one additional hour of pay at the employee’s regular rate of pay).

Employers must make a good faith effort to authorize and permit the 10-minute rest periods in the middle of each 4-hour period to the extent it is practical (e.g., at or near 2-hours into the shift). Within an eight-hour shift, one rest break should generally fall on either side of the meal period.

In summary, employers must authorize and provide rest periods to employees. As with meal periods, however, employers need not ensure that employees actually take the rest periods.

What This Means For You
All employers should have policies in place informing employees of their right to take mandated rest and meal periods and explaining that failure to do so can lead to discipline, up to and including termination of employment. However, with the Supreme Court’s new ruling, employers need not require employees to clock in and out for rest periods (although it is still a good idea to do so for meal periods, which are unpaid). Employers should see a decrease in the number of wage and hour class actions based on meal and rest break violations as a result of this ruling, as employees will now be required to prove that they were not allowed to take breaks, rather than simply that they worked through their breaks.