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Business Law

Large Settlements Show California Businesses Need to be More Aware of Meal Break Laws

Recently, the city of Los angeles finalized a $26-million legal settlement for claims that they prohibited naps and placed other restrictions on the city’s trash truck drivers’ meal break periods. And this week, Fedex settled a class action lawsuit for $2. 1 million in response to claims these laws had been violated.

When a city as large as Los angeles and a company as big as FedEx have trouble following the law, it’s important to carefully consider the way meal and rest breaks are handled in your workplace. There are several different aspects of California business law that employers and employees should be aware of including: what constitutes a proper meal break, waivers, exceptions to the general rule, and filing a wage complaint.

In general, California employers must provide employees who work more than five hours in a shift with a meal period.

In California the requirements are that the employee be relieved of all duty, the employer relinquishes control over the employees activities, the break must last for 30 consecutive minutes, and the employee is not be discouraged from taking the break. Also important is the timing: in a normal 8 hour shift, the meal period must be provided before the sixth hour of work.

Note: A common problem occurs when meal period is interrupted by phone calls from other employees, managers or supervisors asking for their assistance. This violates California labor law since the employee does not get 30 consecutive minutes.

A meal break waiver is only allowed in limited circumstances. Employers and employees may mutually agree to waive a meal break it the employee’s shift is six hours or less. Although it’s not required it is recommended to document the waiver in writing every time a meal period is waived.

Remember: If the employee works 6 or more they must be provided a meal break even if they have signed a waiver.

In very limited circumstances in California, an employer and employee can agree to receive on-duty meal breaks. The employer and employee must have a signed agreement that the employee can revoke at any time, the employee must get a chance to eat while on-duty, and ‘the nature of the work’ must prevent the employee from being relieved of all duty. Whether ‘nature of the work’ prevents the employee from being relieved of all duty is determined by looking at the type of work, the availability of other employees to provide coverage, and whether the product or service will be destroyed or damaged by the 30 minute break.

Important: Consult with an employment attorney before deciding to conduct on-duty meal breaks. The courts and labor commission scrutinize these arrangements.

In California, if an employee feels their meal break rights have been violated they can file a wage claim with the State Labor Commissioner’s Office in addition to the United States Department of Labor. They may file a civil action on behalf of him or herself as well as others who are similarly situated.

Note: Careful consideration should be used when deciding to file a case in the California Superior Court or filing an administrative complaint. There are advantages and disadvantages to either approach.