As many California employers know, ignoring or failing to comply with the requirements of providing meal and rest breaks in California can create huge liability for companies. California law does allow for “on-duty” meal periods, whereby the employee takes a meal break, but while still working. Employers sometimes view this exception as an easy alternative to having employees clock out and leave the company’s premises for meal breaks. However, the on-duty meal break exception has been interpreted to apply only in a very limited set of circumstances, and needs to be carefully examined before implementing in a workplace.
Pursuant to Labor Code section 226.7 and the Wage Orders (for example Wage Order 4-2001, section 11(b)), each failure to provide the specified meal period entitles the employee to receive an additional compensation premium equal to one hour of pay.
The Wage Order provides for an “on duty” meal period that is an exception to the required meal break if the following requirements are met:
An "on duty" meal period shall be permitted only when the nature of the work prevents an employee from being relieved of all duty and when by written agreement between the parties an on-the-job paid meal period is agreed to. The written agreement shall state that the employee may, in writing, revoke the agreement at any time.
Wage Order No. 4-2001(a)(emphasis added). Unfortunately, the definition of the “nature of the work” is not clear, and the only real guidance California employers have on this issue is a Department of Labor Standards Enforcement (“DLSE”) opinion letter. Click here to download the opinion letter.
In the opinion letter, the DLSE addressed the issue of whether a shift manager in a fast food restaurant working the night shift would be allowed to take a “on duty” meal period. The DLSE began its analysis in stating that the off duty meal period is the default requirement, and any exceptions to this requirement should be narrowly construed.
The DLSE set forth factors it considered in determining whether the nature of the work prevents the employee from taking an off-duty meal period. The factors included:
- the type of work
- the availability of other employees to relieve the employee during a meal period
- the potential consequences to the employer if the employee is relieved of all duty
- the ability of the employer to anticipate and minimize these staffing issues such as by scheduling employees in a manner that would allow the employee to take an off-duty meal break and
- whether the “work product or process” would be destroyed or damaged if the employee were given an off-duty meal period.
The DLSE concluded that based on the facts presented in the situation of the fast food restaurant, the nature of the work in the restaurant should not prevent the shift manager from being relieved of all duties for 30 minutes, and therefore the on-duty meal period would not be valid in this context.
In the class action setting, the issue of on-duty meal breaks has resulted in varying opinions. For example, the Ninth Circuit appellate court in Abdullah v. U.S. Security Associates, Inc. upheld the lower court’s granting of class certification on whether a security guard company’s use of on-duty meal period agreements was valid. Alternatively, a California appellate court, in Faulkinbury v. Boyd & Associates, Inc., upheld the denial of class certification for a case also involving on-duty meal period agreements for security guards. Implementing an on-duty meal period agreement in California needs to be approached with caution, and should only be done with assistance from knowledgeable counsel.