New ruling means employers must review meal policies

Lunch breaks are something everyone in the workplace looks forward to during the workday.

However, there is more to these breaks than time to rest. Employees are generally aware that they have a right to take a meal break. Employers know this too, but a recent ruling by the California Supreme Court should make every employer review their policies and practices on this matter.

What does state law require?

California law has very strict regulations regarding meal periods. It requires employers to provide employees with meal periods :

  • If an employee works more than five hours in a workday
  • If an employee works more than ten hours in a workday
  • That are uninterrupted duty free and last no less than a net 30 minutes

In limited circumstances, an employee may waive a meal period or take an on-duty meal period.  Employers must understand the specific rules that apply before allowing a waiver or on-duty meal period.  Compliance with meal period obligations requires more careful thought and planning than many employers might think at first.

Strict timekeeping is critical – and now necessary

Employers should implement a timekeeping system that records the start and stop time of all meal periods. In February, the California Supreme Court determined that employers could not use rounding timekeeping strategies to mark meal periods. For example, a timekeeping system that records a meal period from 11:00 a.m. to 11:28 a.m., cannot round the meal period to 11:30 p.m. and treat the meal period as a compliant full 30 minutes. Employers must implement accurate timekeeping practices and policies to ensure they comply with the law.

Most employers use rounding tools or strategies for timekeeping because it is more efficient to track their employees’ work hours. However, the Court inferred that using rounding strategies would not show whether employers truly complied with the law or not – specifically in the event of a meal period claim.

Employers: Reevaluate timekeeping policies

In response to cases like this, it is often best for employers to take proactive measures. Employers should make sure that they:

  • Reassess their policies for employee meal periods; implement meal and rest period policies if not yet in existence
  • Review all timekeeping and recordkeeping practices and, in turn, training
  • Research systems that allow for precise timekeeping—both for meal periods and for all time worked

Even minor violations of the law regulating meal breaks could have serious consequences for employers. And to protect their workers – as well as their business – it is essential to evaluate and ensure compliance with the law.