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California Meal Break Law (2019)

By on October 14, 2019

Table of Contents

Under California Meal Break Law, nonexempt workers (those entitled to overtime under the FLSA (Fair Labor Standards Act) are entitled to a 30 minutes uninterrupted meal break for every 5+ hours worked in a workday. The law is better than federal labor law.

If an employer violates the California Meal Break Law, they must pay an extra hour (of regular pay) for every day a meal break violation occurs. However, the extra hour isn’t considered as hours worked in overtime calculations. 

Employees are also accorded to a second meal break of 30 minutes or more if they work for over 10 hours daily. The meal break must begin before the 11th hour of work.  Here’s a chart showing the number of meal breaks due, depending on the hours you work. 

Number of Hours WorkedNumber of Meal Breaks
0 to 5 hours0
Over 5 hours to 10 hours 1
Over 10 hours to 15 hours 2
Over 15 hours to 20 hours 3

Important: Employees are entitled by law to spend their meal breaks as they wish off working premises. Also, employees can’t be required to work during meal breaks except in special cases, i.e., if they wish to or in other instances that will be discussed below. Employers are also obligated by law to make breaks available. However, taking meal breaks is entirely up to an employee. 

California meal break waiver and exceptions by industry

  • A meal break can be waived if the employee works for 6 hours or less. However, the meal break waiver should be by mutual consent. Both the employee and employer should agree. 
  • The second meal break for workers working more than 10 hours can be waived if a worker works for 12 hours or less daily. The waiver should also be by mutual consent. However, the 2nd meal break can’t be waived if the 1st meal break was waived. 
  • Employees in specific industries, such as the film or motion picture industry are supposed to work for 6 hours before getting a meal break that is between 30 minutes and an hour. Subsequent meal periods for such employees must be within 6 hours (after the 1st meal break). 

California on duty meal period

If an employee isn’t relieved of all duties during their half-hour meal break, their meal period is considered to be on duty. Such meal periods are considered as working hours; therefore, employees who take on-duty meal breaks must be compensated accordingly at the applicable rate of pay.

When is an on duty meal period permitted/applied?

California Meal Break Law permits on duty meal period depending on four main factors, namely: 

  • The nature of work
  • If there is a written agreement
  • Objective criteria
  • If a worker is restricted within a workplace

1. Nature of work: If an employee’s nature of work prevents them from being relieved of duty completely, i.e., security guards, such an employee is entitled to an on-duty meal period. 

2. Written agreement: On-duty meal periods are also permitted if there is a written agreement between employees and employers. Such agreements must have a clause giving employees an exclusive right to revoke the agreement anytime.

3. Objective criteria: An objective criteria must be used to reach an agreement given the obvious challenges involved in determining if an employee can be relieved of all duties during a meal break, based on the nature of their work.

4. Worker restrictions within a workplace: A meal period must also be paid if an employer requires an employee to remain within the facility or worksite even if they are relieved of all duties during their meal break.

Where should you take your meal break?

In situations where meal breaks are taken on the premises or job site due to factors such as the nature of work, employers are supposed to offer designated areas for workers to eat. This requirement applies to workers in industries such as construction, mining, drilling, and logging, among other on-site occupations, according to the Industrial Welfare Commission Order number 16-2001.  Under the order, employers must also provide enough portable water and soap or other cleaning agents as well as single-use hand towels.

The IWC (Industrial Welfare Commission) has other orders regarding the premises or facilities where workers are supposed to take meals. For instance, areas meant for meal breaks should offer facilities for heating food/drink or serving hot food/drink for workers whose shift starts or ends between 10 pm and 6 am. 

Under order number 12-2001, applying to motion picture industry employees, employers must provide hot meals and drinks to any employees working after midnight with the exception of off-production workers who are typically scheduled to work such hours.

Can a meal break count as a rest break?

Meal breaks and rest breaks must be separate. An employer can’t treat an employee’s meal break as a meal and rest break in one. Furthermore, employers can’t give one long meal break to count as all meal and rest breaks for an entire shift. However, there may be some exceptions based on industries. 

California Rest Break regulation

Employees in California are entitled to 10 minutes of uninterrupted rest breaks after every 4 hours of work. The rest breaks must be duty-free. Non-compliant employers are liable to pay an hour’s worth of regular pay daily for every day they violate an employee’s rest break requirements. 

Employees who work less than 4 hours (at least 3.5 hours), should get one rest break. Employees working 6 hours + should get a 2nd rest break. A third rest break should be given to employees who work 10+ hours. 

The law requires rest breaks to be given in the middle of every work period. Also, workers shouldn’t work. Although it is not advisable for employees to skip rest breaks, they can do so as long as this isn’t instigated by the employer. 

Who isn’t entitled to meal breaks in California?

As mentioned above, California Meal Break Law is applicable to nonexempt employees only. If you are wondering who isn’t entitled to meal breaks, here’s a summary:

  • Meal breaks don’t apply to white-collar employees who spend 50% of their working time doing creative, intellectual, or managerial work.
  • The law also exempts white-collar employees who exercise discretion as well as independent judgment while doing their work. 
  • Also, the law doesn’t apply to employees who earn a salary that is twice as much as the minimum wage in California for full-time employment. 
  • Independent contractors are also exempt. However, it’s worth noting that the law is “sympathetic” about employees who are misclassified. In California, independent contractors are persons who offer services on behalf of another person while maintaining control over how the services are rendered. Anyone who doesn’t meet this definition isn’t considered an independent contractor in California. Instead, they are an employee under California Labor law.
  • Unionized employees in some industries are also exempt. If an employee belongs to a union with a collective bargaining agreement that offers meal breaks differently, they are exempt from California Meal Break Law. Meal break provisions provided in collective bargaining agreements override California laws applicable to unionized employees working in the construction, electrical, gas, and motion pictures industry as well as employees working as security officers and commercial drivers.  
  • The meal break law doesn’t apply to exempt workers in California like certain executives, administrative workers, medical and legal employees, and computer employees. Special rest/meal break rules apply to employees in professional driving, bakery industry, heavy-duty operations, manufacturing, healthcare, utilities, and group home care industries.

California meal break law changes

The AB 2610 highlights a meal break exception affecting feed truck drivers.  Such drivers transporting commercial feeds to remote rural areas can begin meal periods after 6 hours of driving (as opposed to after 5 hours of driving. However, the driver’s regular pay must be equal to 1.5 times the minimum wage or more. The driver must also be entitled to overtime compensation.  

FAQs about California Meal Break law

1. How many meal breaks in a 12-hour shift? 

If you work a 12-hour shift, you are entitled to two meal breaks. However, the second meal break must begin before the 11th hour of work. 

2. Are meal breaks paid in California?

Yes, if there is a meal break violation, i.e., if you are required to work during your meal break. You must be paid an extra hour (of regular pay) for every day a meal break violation that occurs. 

3. My employer has denied me a meal break. What can I do?

Under California Meal Break Law, your employer must meet meal period requirements such as paying you an hour of your regular pay for every day you have worked without a meal break.  If your employer refuses to pay you as per the law, you have the right to file a claim with the DLSE, as discussed below.

4. Can I work through a meal break period so that I leave my job early?

No. Missing a meal break voluntarily won’t earn you the right to leave work earlier than the scheduled time. Working through a meal break (also known as on-duty meal break) is permitted under the law based on factors like the nature of your work. You must be working in an industry that prevents you from being relieved of duty completely.

You also need an agreement to take on-duty meal break. However, you can revoke your right to work during a meal break period at any time. Your employer can’t compel you to stay at work during a meal break. Most importantly, missing a meal break doesn’t entitle you to leave work before the agreed time, whether you have agreed on a meal break period or not. You should talk to your employer to get flexible working hours.

5. Can my employer force me to stay within the premises during a meal break?

No. However, your employer can require you to remain within the premises even if you are not working. However, if they deny you time, you must be compensated. There are some exceptions to this for healthcare workers. If your employer requires you to have your meal break within the premises, they should offer a designate suitable place with facilities for heating food and drink as well as facilities for consuming the food and beverages.

6. I have been misclassified by my employer and denied meal breaks. What can I do?

If your employer misclassifies you to avoid paying you your rightful dues or benefits, you can file a claim to enforce your rights. Nonexempt employees are entitled to meal breaks, rest breaks, and overtime pay. It is illegal for your employer to misclassify you, i.e., as an independent contractor for purposes of denying you compensation for working over meal breaks, among other violations.

Employers found guilty of misclassifying workers to pay lower wages, or meal break compensation must pay for such violations plus accrued interest, among other costs like attorney fees.

How to file a meal break claim

If your right to a meal break/s is violated by your employer, you can file a claim through the DLSE (Division of Labor Standards Enforcement). Employees with claims against former or current employers for any unpaid wages or other compensation falling under the Labor Commissioner’s jurisdiction should file a claim through the DLSE under the State Labor Commissioner’s direction.

State Labor Commissioner’s jurisdiction

The Labor Commissioner doesn’t have jurisdiction over independent contractors. The Commissioner may have limited jurisdiction over public agency employees like state, country, federal, or municipal employees. Based on past court decisions, the Commissioner may also lack jurisdiction over wage claims filed by union members who have signed collective bargaining agreements. Most importantly, the Labor Commissioner has the authority to determine jurisdiction over a claim.

Procedures for investigation

The Labor Code (section 98 & 98.3) defines methods for investigating a wage complaint, which can include a conference, hearing, or both.

Complex claims that involve many employees and records tend to be investigated by the BOFE (Bureau of Field Enforcement) under the DLSE. 

Time limits

Before filing a California Meal Break Law violation, make sure you observe the time limits. You have three years to file if your employer has violated your right to meal breaks or reimbursements. The same deadline applies if your employer has made illegal deductions. You have a year to file if your employer gives you a bounced check or refuses to provide you with a copy of your payroll records. If you have a written contract, you must file within four years.

a. Filing the Complaint

There are 4 main steps to filing a meal break law claim. They include:

  • File DLSE Form 1
  • File DLSE Form 155
  • Submit copies of other documents 
  • Assigning of claim to Deputy Labor Commissioner

File DLSE Form 1

Any employee with a claim alleging non-payment of meal break or related violations has to file an initial claim form known as the DLSE Form 1 through the DLSE’s local office to initiate an investigation by the State Labor Commissioner. The employee should offer detailed information on the claim form, including information such as their legal name, address, location, etc.

File DLSE Form 155

The employee is required to provide additional DLSE forms in special circumstances, such as when a claim involves commission payment or vacation wages. If the employee work hours/days vary or were irregular and they are seeking unpaid wages for meal period violations, they should file a DLSE Form 155.

Copies of other documents 

An employee should also submit copies (not originals) of other documents to support their claim. Examples of such documents include time records of dates and hours worked, paychecks showing wages paid during the claim period, dishonored paychecks during the claim period, and employment information showing the rate of pay and overtime pay.

However, an employer is obligated by law to keep accurate employee records indicating payroll records, statements, etc. As a result, employees aren’t required to have their own records or the documents/information above before they can file a claim. The documents are needed only if an employee has them to assist the DLSE to understand the claim.

If the employee was/is working under a union contract or collective bargaining agreement, the contract/agreement should be availed. 

Assigning of claim to Deputy Labor Commissioner

Once all the required documents are filed, the claim moves to the Deputy Labor Commissioner, who determines the next cause of action. He/she has 30 days to notify parties on the next cause of action, which can either be referring the claim to a conference, hearing, or dismissing the claim.

b. Referral to a conference

Some California meal break claims can skip the conference process and go straight to hearing. However, cases can be resolved informally before a conference or hearing. 

If the deputy Labor Commissioner sees the need for a conference, a notice (Notice of Claim Filed & Conference) is sent to all parties describing the claim as well as other important information such as location, date, and time for the conference.

All parties should attend the conference. Conferences are meant to establish whether the claim is resolvable without a hearing. The entire process is informal, and parties aren’t under oath. The deputy Labor Commissioner’s aim is working with an employer and employee to reach an agreement that resolves the claim.

You should be ready to discuss the claim openly, including whether you have any witnesses. However, you aren’t required to bring any witness. It is important to bring copies of supporting documents, although there is no need to carry copies of documents you have already submitted alongside the claim form. Your employer should also bring documents supporting their position.

You can speak with the deputy Commissioner in private at any time during the conference. Lastly, you should make known any changes to your contacts (address and phone no.) in writing, including your name and claim no. in the update.

What happens if my employer doesn’t show up to a conference?

If your employer doesn’t come to the conference, a hearing is scheduled. 

What happens if I don’t show up?

If you don’t attend a conference without a good reason, your claim will be dismissed. 

Resolution

Cases which aren’t resolved at this stage usually result in a hearing or dismissal, unless there is a legal basis for proceeding. If your employer decided to pay the claim or a portion of the claim directly to you, the deputy commissioner must be notified. If the payment is satisfactory (paid in full), your claim will be considered settled and closed. You can also withdraw your claim upon full or partial payment via a written request. Withdrawal can also be voluntarily anytime during the entire process, with or without payment. 

Settlement

Your employer can agree to pay and resolve the claim. If that’s the case, they must enter into an official agreement known as a settlement. Employers can settle anytime during a claim process. It’s important to note that the Labor Commissioner only enforces signed settlements on forms offered by the Labor commissioner’s office. 

c. Hearing

If your claim results in a hearing, you and your current/former employer will be notified via personal service or mail through a notice highlighting the place, date, and time of the hearing. Unlike conferences, hearings are formal proceedings. The importance of having legal representation (an attorney) can’t, therefore, be overlooked. All parties and witnesses at the hearing are expected to testify under oath. The proceedings are also recorded.

Rights of parties 

During the hearing, you and your current/former employer have the right to representation by a lawyer or other party, right to present evidence, testify and have witnesses testify, cross-examine witnesses/opposing party, explain the evidence, rebut evidence in opposition and have an interpreter, if necessary.

Role of a hearing officer

Hearings are managed by a hearing officer who has authority and discretion to conduct the hearing. He/she has several roles which include, but not limited to:

  • Determining which witnesses testify
  • Determining the order of testifying, cross-examination and giving rebuttal as well as assisting during such processes
  • Explaining unclear issues/terms to parties
  • Questioning witnesses and parties to get important facts
  • Accepting and considering documents and testimonies offered
  • Recording matters officially

Preparing for a hearing

You should have all supporting documents since your employer may introduce records as evidence at this stage. You should bring original documents to a hearing alongside copies of the same. Ideally, you should have 2 copies of each original document.

You should arrange for a witness/s to attend at this stage. The process can be voluntary or compelled via the issuance of a subpoena, which can be requested at this stage.

The Labor Commissioner is in charge of issuing subpoenas. Applications must be made 15 days before the hearing date. The DLSE 564 contains information on subpoenas. You should submit a request in writing stating why you feel the records, witnesses, or documents are necessary.  Any resulting costs must be met by the applicant.  

A request to change the place, date, or time of hearing can be made. However, such requests can’t be granted unless under extraordinary circumstances. The senior deputy and hearing officer have sole discretion to grant such a request.

Hearing determination

Failure to attend a hearing because your request isn’t granted or other reasons will result in a case dismissal. If your employer doesn’t attend the hearing, the case is determined based on the evidence you have submitted. 

A hearing officer has wide discretion when accepting the evidence. They aren’t limited by formal rules. They can also decide whether penalties are appropriate or not.

After a hearing, the Labor Commissioner’s ODA (Order, Decision, or Award) is filed and served on parties within 15 days (after the hearing) or shortly after. The ODA highlights the decision as well as the amount awarded by the hearing officer.

d. Appeal

You can appeal the ODA determining your California meal break claim. Your employer also has the right to an appeal. A notice of appeal or DLSE 537 must be obtained and filed in court within the time limits applicable. A notice of appeal should be served to the opposing party and Labor Commissioner. 

If your employer files an appeal, they must post the ODA amount with the court in question. The matter is scheduled for hearing by the court clerk.  A judge must hear the case afresh with all parties having an opportunity to present witnesses and evidence.

Appeals must be filled in time (within 15 days from sending date or within 20 days if the ODA is sent to an out of state address). If appeals aren’t served in time, the decision is final and enforceable. If appealed, the case moves from the Labor Commissioner to the local county superior court. If you appeal, it is important to hire an attorney if you didn’t have one through the entire claim process.

If your employer decided to appeal, two forms (claimant’s financial status and request for an attorney) alongside a notice of appeal will be sent to you. Low-income workers can request for free representation using the two forms. The Labor Commissioner can provide free representation to individuals who are considered low-income workers.

If the appeal favors you and your employer doesn’t appeal, the judgment is deemed final and legally enforceable. You have the right to collect your award from your employer at this point.

Important: Although this guide highlights the process of meal break related claims as per California Meal Break Law, you are expected to read every form, among other information you receive throughout the entire process. Failing to comply with all requirements that may or may not be covered above can make you lose important rights and/or compromise your case. The importance of seeking legal help throughout the entire process can’t be stressed enough. 

FAQs about California Meal Break claim procedures

1. I don’t know my employer. Can I file a claim?

Yes. Any persons acting as managers or supervisors that violate labor rights in California can be held accountable alongside an employer. 

2. I don’t have records, can I file a claim?

Yes. Although it is beneficial for you to have your own payment records, a lack of records can’t be used as a basis for denying a claim. The law compels employers to have accurate records of all their employees at all times. Such information should also be provided if need be i.e., on request by the Labor Commissioner.

Lacking records can delay a claim; however, your records can be retrieved from your employer. Also, there is potential for employers to tamper with employee records. Keeping such records and producing is therefore better.

3. How do I contact the Labor commissioner?

You can contact the Labor Commissioner’s office by mail, in person, or via email.  The process of filing a claim can be done 100% online. You can visit the California Department of Industrial Relation’s website to download claim forms as well as attach applicable documents and send them via mail. The website has detailed instructions, including physical location information for locating a Labor Commissioner office near you.  

4. What kind of information does the Labor Commissioner’s Office need?

You must provide the name of your employer or persons you work for before you get any assistance with your claim.  The name of your employer should be on the mailing labels, paystubs, and product labels of the information you supply. If you can’t get such information, you can provide the license plate number of the vehicle of your employer. If you have many employers/supervisors, write down their names, and vehicle registration numbers.  

Besides providing the names of your employer/supervisor, you should also provide other information such as the hours worked. You should provide information on the time you start and stop working every day, including when you take meals and total hours worked.  

If you have a contract, you are entitled to be paid the minimum wage or more for every hour worked. You should provide the time you spend earning a piece rate or working on each contract to allow an accurate comparison between the hours worked, pay, and applicable dues.  

The importance of keeping all your payment information/pay stubs can’t be overlooked. Your employer must provide an itemized wage statement every time they pay you. Pay stubs contain information such as an employee’s name, salary, date of pay, employer’s name/address/phone number, benefits, and deductions like tax. Although employers can be compelled to provide such information, having it in advance will help to support your claim when filing.  

5. Which supporting documents do I need to support my claim?

Besides time records, paychecks and pay stubs, you should also submit copies of any bounced checks your employer has given you as remuneration for meal breaks. A copy of your notice of employment is also crucial since it indicates important information such as overtime rate, shift information, etc. 

You should also provide additional worksheets depending on your nature of work. If you have worked irregular hours or your working hours fluctuate, yet you are claiming meal period violations; you should complete and submit the DLSE-55 computation worksheet.  

If you are being represented by a lawyer, you’ll also need to provide detailed information that has been prepared by your lawyer in place of the worksheets discussed above. 

6. What will happen after I file a California meal break claim?

After filing a claim with the DLSE, the claim will move to the Deputy Labor Commissioner. He/she will decide the best course of action after looking at the information presented. The claim can move to a conference or hearing. The claim can also be dismissed if one or both parties don’t show up in the conference or hearing stages. Other causes of dismissal include lack of evidence or claim withdrawal by the filing party. 

If the claim moves to a conference, both parties must be notified of the venue, date, and time of the conference. The conference stage is meant to access the validity of your claim and see if a resolution can be reached without a hearing. If the claim isn’t resolved, the matter must be heard or get dismissed for lack of evidence.

At the hearing, both parties and their witnesses will testify (under oath). Hearing proceedings are recorded. A hearing is concluded by an ODA. Both parties can appeal the order or award given by the Labor Commissioner.

If there is an appeal, the claim will result in a trial where all parties will be expected to present their evidence and witnesses afresh. Testimonies and evidence presented at the hearing stage can’t be used as a basis for a court decision. There’s a more detailed discussion above on what happens after filing a meal break claim.

7. How should I prepare for a hearing?

The hearing officer doesn’t consider other evidence or testimony that isn’t presented during a hearing, so preparation is critical. You should review claim evidence and information such as hours worked and what you were paid. It’s important to have notes and timelines of events to be discussed at the hearing.

Remember to make three copies of any document you intend to submit to support your claim. The hearing officer and named defendant should have a copy of every document you submit. You should also plan to bring witnesses, including requesting the issuance of subpoenas compelling witnesses to attend if need be. Lastly, plan to question your employer and/or any witnesses they present.

8. What should I do when my employer doesn’t appeal the ODA or pay me after a court decision in my favor?

If the ODA is in your favor and your employer doesn’t appeal, they are subject to the ODA. The DLSE enters ODAs as enforceable judgments. The final judgment is enforceable with the same force as other money judgments issued by a court of law. You can collect your award in person or assign the DLSE to collect the award on your behalf if you foresee or encounter any problems.

9. What should I do if my employer discriminates me or retaliates against me for asking about my meal period or launching a meal break claim?

If you are discriminated against or face retaliatory action from an employer because of filing a meal break claim or asking for what is rightfully yours, you can file a complaint. You can complain to the RCI (Retaliatory Complaint Investigation Unit) in the Labor Commissioner’s office if you are discharged or subjected to actions you believe are illegal just because of filing a meal break claim. 

Employees in California have a right to exercise labor rights without discrimination or retaliation. The Labor Commissioner enforces over 45 labor laws pertaining to discrimination and retaliation. The RCI investigates termination, transfer, suspension, demotion, reduction in pay, threats, and unfair immigration practices, among other workplace retaliation instances.

10. When should I accept a settlement offer?

If you are interested in resolving a claim quickly and your employer has agreed to pay what is rightfully yours or a mutually agreed amount, it’s advisable to settle. If they don’t, you can proceed. However, you should be aware of the risk associated with declining a settlement. For instance, your employer can file for bankruptcy. They can also wind down before you get any payment. 

You should reject settlement offers that are too low or less than the money owed. However, try to negotiate first before rejecting a settlement; otherwise, the case will move on to a hearing that may be lengthy.

Important: Seek legal advice before accepting a settlement offer. In most cases, many provisions may be overlooked by an employee when accepting a settlement, yet they can be used to get better offers in most cases. 

11. Can my employer dismiss or fire me for reporting a meal break law violation?

Employers who take any retaliatory action against employees who exercise their rights as stipulated in California Labor laws are guilty of wrongful termination. You shouldn’t be dismissed for reporting a misclassification, asking for your rightful meal break dues, launching a meal break claim, or any other action that qualifies as wrongful termination as per the EEOC

California Meal Break Law Cases

California has seen a number of meal break law cases amounting to millions in settlements. Other cases have also been dismissed. Here are some notable meal break law cases that have taken place in the recent past:

  • Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. California Restaurant Workers
  • AT&T Mobility Services v. employees
  • Donohue v. AMN Services

1. Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. California Restaurant Workers

On 6th August 2014, Brinker Restaurant Corporation – The Company behind Chili’s and Maggiano’s restaurants settled a decade-long battle class-action lawsuit for $56.5 million. The class-action lawsuit involved 120,000 class members.  The case, which happens to be among the most publicized class-action suits involving California meal break violations, ended up in the California Supreme Court in 2012

In 2012, the high court ruled that businesses must offer uninterrupted 30 minute meal breaks to their workers but weren’t obligated to ensure work isn’t done during such breaks. The ruling also cautioned employers from discouraging or impeding employees from taking uninterrupted breaks. According to Brinker Restaurant Corporation employees, their employer had failed to offer rest and meal break periods as required by state law, i.e., in the frequency and timelines dictated by state law.

Brinker’s $56.5 million settlement is an important reminder for companies to have workplace policies that specify: the minimum working hours triggering unpaid 30-minute meal breaks, the shift hours triggering paid rest breaks, employees obligations to recording working periods accurately and management’s role in scheduling meal break periods to cater for employee concerns. The settlement also highlights the importance of procedures for handling employee complaints about meal break and rest break related issues, and provisions for employees to contest or confirm skipped breaks are voluntary.

2. AT&T Mobility Services v. employees

In 2016, AT&T Mobility Services agreed to settle a class-action lawsuit for $8 million for failing to pay employees for working during meal and rest breaks. The settlement also required AT&T to establish a settlement fund for compensating assistant store managers and retail sales consultants who weren’t paid after missing meal and rest breaks. AT&T also agreed to modify its policies for meal and rest breaks to ensure all employees got breaks and got compensated at a premium pay rate if they skipped breaks because of unavoidable reasons.  

According to the wage and hour class-action lawsuit filed in 2014 by Tran K. Ly (lead plaintiff), AT&T was accused of violating the California Labor Code (PAGA) of 2004 by routinely making employees work during their break periods because of the company’s poor staff scheduling. The lawsuit also claimed employees weren’t paid according to the premium hourly rate as required, and employees weren’t paid for waiting for work devices to be issued/returned to them as part of closing procedures after working hours. AT&T didn’t consider other closing procedures like locking building doors as part of working hours.

The settlement included nonexempt store managers and sales staff who were employed from 30th April 2010 to the preliminary approval date. Nine thousand four hundred twenty-six employees were included in the settlement as of 30th June 2015. The settlement amount included money to eligible claimant’s civil penalties amounting to $42,000 to be paid to the California Labor & Workforce Development Agency, a $15,000 service award to Tran K. Ly, $60,000 settlement administration costs and $2.265 million in attorney fees and costs. 

3. Donohue v. AMN Services

Not all California Meal Break Law cases have gone in favor of employees. The importance of seeking legal advice or hiring a lawyer can’t, therefore, be overlooked before filing a claim or suing an employer. 

In 2018, a court ruling on Donohue v. AMN Services case number D071865 upheld AMN Services rounding policy. According to the California appellate court ruling, AMN Services didn’t violate the law for rounding up meal break periods for its nonexempt employees.  

AMN Services employed Donohue, a nonexempt employee. The company tracked Donohue, among other nurse recruiters, using a timekeeping system which recruiters punched in/out when taking meals/returning from meals. The computer-based system rounded off punch times (7.56 am to 8.00 am, and 8.02 to 8.00 am. 8.05 am would be recorded as 8.10 am).

Donohue filed a class-action suit alleging the rounding policy violated California wage and hour regulations. The suit resulted in a summary judgment. The court of appeal upheld the judgment. According to judgment, California labor laws allow employers to use rounding policies as long as they are fair and will not cause failure to compensate employees accordingly for the hours they have worked. The court ruled that the rounding policy didn’t favor underpayment or overpayment. However, the ruling iterated that rounding policies that systematically undercompensate employees are unacceptable. 

The court found AMN’s policy fair after an expert testimony made by a labor economist who analyzed the time records of 311 recruiters and determined that the AMN policy was “more than fair” given it offered a 9.82 hours surplus to Donohue. Attempts to initiate a triable issue based on a statistics professor’s testimony were rejected, although the professor had found AMN’s policy to be unfair to some employees.  

Nonexempt employees in California are free to pursue California Meal Break Law violations on their own. The DLSE makes it easy to report your employer if they violate the law. However, there is more to meal break cases than the information that is readily available. California’s labor laws are complex. Related laws such as those enforced by the EEOC on workplace discrimination are also complex. Let’s not even mention the technicalities (procedures, documents, and timelines) associated with filing a successful claim. You need an attorney that specializes in California labor law to guide you.

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