What are the basic requirements for meal periods under California law? Under California law (IWC Orders and Labor Code Section 512), employees must be provided with no less than a thirty-minute meal period when the work period is more than five hours (more than six hours for employees in the motion picture industry covered by IWC Order 12-2001).Unless the employee is relieved of all duty during the entire thirty-minute meal period and is free to leave the employer's premises, the meal period shall be considered "on duty," counted as hours worked, and paid for at the employee's regular rate of pay. An "on duty" meal period will be permitted only when the nature of the work prevents the employee from being relieved of all duty and when by written agreement between the employer and employee an on-the-job meal period is agreed to. The test of whether the nature of the work prevents an employee from being relieved of all duty is an objective one. An employer and employee may not agree to an on-duty meal period unless, based on objective criteria, any employee would be prevented from being relieved of all duty based on the necessary job duties. Some examples of jobs that fit this category are a sole worker in a coffee kiosk, a sole worker in an all-night convenience store, and a security guard stationed alone at a remote site.
How does an employer satisfy its obligation to provide a meal period according to the law? An employer is not required to ensure that no work is performed. However, an employer must do more than simply make a meal period “available.” In general, to satisfy its obligation to provide a meal period, an employer must actually relieve employees of all duty, relinquish control over their activities, permit them a reasonable opportunity to take an uninterrupted 30-minute break (in which they are free to come and go as they please), and must not impede or discourage employees from taking their meal period. (For employees in the health care industry covered by IWC Orders 4 or 5, however, minor exceptions exist as to the employee’s right to leave the employment premises during an off-duty meal period.) Employers may not undermine a formal policy of providing meal periods by pressuring employees to perform their duties in ways that omit breaks (e.g., through a scheduling policy that makes taking breaks extremely difficult). As the California Supreme Court has noted, “The wage orders and governing statute do not countenance an employer's exerting coercion against the taking of, creating incentives to forego, or otherwise encouraging the skipping of legally protected breaks.” Which particular facts in any given case will satisfy the employer’s obligation to provide bona relief from all duty may vary from industry to industry. See Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court (2012) 53 Cal.4th 1004.
What are the timing requirements for when any required first or second meal period must be provided during the workday? In general, when an employee works for a work period of more than five hours, a meal period must be provided no later than the end of the employee’s fifth hour of work (in other words, no later than the start of the employee’s sixth hour of work). When an employee works for a period of more than 10 hours, a second meal period must be provided no later than the end of the employee’s tenth hour of work (in other words, no later than the start of the employee’s eleventh hour of work). The foregoing rules are subject to certain waivers by mutual consent, and different rules apply to employees in the motion picture industry. See Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court (2012) 53 Cal.4th 1004.
If there is bona fide relief from all duty during a meal period and the employer relinquishes all control over the employee’s activities, but the employee then freely chooses to continue working, is the employer liable for meal period premium pay? No, the employer would not be liable for meal period premium pay where there is bona fide relief from duty and relinquishment of employer control (and no discouragement or coercion from the employer against taking the meal period). However, in this circumstance, an employer that knows or has reason to know an employee is performing work during the meal period owes compensation to the employee for the time worked (including any overtime hours that have accrued as a result of working through the meal period). See Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court (2012) 53 Cal.4th 100.
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