Feeding California Employees Presents Unique Challenges

By June Bell September 14, 2018
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From food trucks to Michelin-starred restaurants, California is renowned for its culinary variety and innovation. The Golden State has another gastronomic claim to fame: It is home to some of the country's most-complex and challenging regulations governing meal breaks. Lately, even where workers can eat has come under fire. Here are some recent food-related developments affecting California employees.

Dining on the Company Dime

Free or discounted meals are a typical and popular perk at Silicon Valley and San Francisco startups and tech companies. Employees who put in long hours have come to expect their employers to provide or subsidize lavish, onsite salad bars, pressed-juice stations and gourmet meals.

But detractors say in-house dining options are a threat to neighborhood cafes, luncheonettes and sandwich shops. Despite the influx of tech workers in the Bay Area, nearby eateries may struggle or fold because they can't compete on price or convenience.

San Francisco's Board of Supervisors is considering an ordinance to ban employee cafeterias in new buildings. The proposed law is modeled on a similar restriction in the Silicon Valley town of Mountain View, where 2,000 Facebook workers will populate a new campus this fall. In 2014, Mountain View barred incoming tenants on the campus site from offering meals that were free or subsidized by 50 percent or more.  

Bay Area HR professionals say there's a happy medium: Tap neighborhood restaurants for take-out and catering. That's the strategy used by Homebase, a San Francisco-based tech company that creates scheduling and time-tracking software.

A delivery service brings lunch from local eateries to about 75 Homebase employees three times a week, said Kelli Schultz, the company's people operations manager. Having engineers, programmers and product team members sit down together for a meal "is a really great piece of our culture," she said. Homebase staffers eat out or brown-bag it on the other two days.

The company tries to order from restaurants that use its software, she said, estimating that she patronizes about two dozen local eateries.

Standing Order

Some businesses that provide onsite meals do so out of necessity; when a business is isolated in an office park, employees waste break time driving, hunting for parking and queueing up for food. They also clog local roads. The 32 workers at GoodHire, a company that does employment background screenings, eat lunches from nearby restaurants delivered daily by Forkable.

GoodHire pays for up to $15 per meal, said Marielle Smith, vice president of people. She and her colleagues work in Redwood Shores, where there are few restaurants within walking distance. "The biggest value we get from [catered meals] is socializing," she said. "People will sit down together in our cafeteria and talk about nonwork things, and I think that's really good for our employees."

Smith said she understands why San Francisco is considering restricting company cafeterias but considers the idea misguided because city eateries are frequently packed. "I struggle with this [proposed] ordinance," she said. "If I walk into any of the good places [in San Francisco], I can't get a table."

Discounted Meals, with a Caveat

In a case brought by a Taco Bell worker, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held in August that restaurants don't have to pay employees for meal breaks if those workers aren't on the job but must eat their discounted meals onsite.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Complying with California Wage Payment and Hours of Work Laws]

The Suisun City Taco Bell worker claimed that she should have been paid for her meal breaks because her employer retained control over her time by requiring her to consume her discounted meal in the Taco Bell restaurant. The appellate panel disagreed, noting Rodriguez was relieved of her work duties during her meal breaks. She was free to leave the restaurant, and she was not obligated to purchase or eat Taco Bell's food.

June D. Bell, a regular contributor to SHRM, covers legal issues for a variety of publications. Contact her at june@junebell.com.

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