Are California Employers Required to Have Formal Policies for Meal and Rest Breaks?

Federal appeals court asked California Supreme Court to weigh in

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Under California law, businesses must provide employees with meal and rest breaks and relieve them of all duty during those times. Employers are not required to police those breaks or ensure that employees refrain from working, but the law isn't clear on whether employers are required to have formal policies about breaks. So a federal appeals court asked the California Supreme Court to weigh in on the issue.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals asked the California Supreme Court to answer two questions about the state's laws governing meal and rest breaks:

  • Does an employer violate California law if it doesn't have a formal meal and rest break policy?
  • Does an employer's failure to keep records for meal and rest breaks taken by its employees create a legal presumption that the meal and rest breaks were not provided?

We've rounded up the latest news on this topic. Here are SHRM Online resources and news articles from other trusted media outlets.

The Underlying Case

In Cole v. CRST Van Expedited, Inc., a truck driver filed a class-action complaint against a transportation company alleging that drivers were required to work through meal and rest breaks in violation of California law.

The employer said drivers could take breaks whenever they needed to eat, use the restroom, do laundry or make personal calls. California's meal and rest break rules were posted on a bulletin board at the terminal in the drivers' lounge and where orientations were conducted.

The plaintiff acknowledged that the company didn't prohibit him from taking breaks, but said he was sometimes unable to take breaks because he needed to "keep the wheels rolling" to make his deliveries on time. He also argued that the company had no written policy for meal breaks and didn't schedule his breaks or take any action to relieve him from all duty.

The plaintiff argued that California law requires employers to adopt a policy authorizing meal breaks, and that the defendant didn't have such a policy or record meal breaks on its payroll statements.

The 9th Circuit noted that the California Supreme Court has not directly addressed "whether the absence of a policy providing for meal and rest breaks constitutes a violation of California labor law."

Implications for Employers

The California Supreme Court's answers to the questions presented by the 9th Circuit could have a huge impact upon employers in the state. For example, if the state high court finds that an employer may not simply post the applicable wage order to notify employees of their meal and rest period rights, certain employers will need to change their practices and adopt a formal written policy. Furthermore, employers could face class-action lawsuits for past practices if they didn't have formal policies.

(Epstein Becker Green)

California Has Strict Break Laws

In California, workers are entitled to a 10-minute paid rest break for every four hours worked "or major fraction thereof" and a 30-minute unpaid meal break for every five hours they work. Employees can waive their right to take a meal break but only if they work no more than six hours. In certain circumstances, an employee may be permitted to have an "on-duty" meal period, but the time must be paid at the worker's regular rate of pay. California law also dictates at what point in the shift the breaks must be taken. Rest breaks must be taken near the middle of a four-hour work period, and meal breaks must be taken before the end of the fifth hour of a shift.

(SHRM Online)

[SHRM members-only resource: Meal and Rest Break Requirements by State]

Policing Not Required

Under the California Supreme Court decision in Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court, employers must provide meal breaks, relieve employees of their duties during those periods and be sure not to interfere with workers' ability to take breaks. However, the state high court said employers aren't required to police employees to ensure no work is done.

(SHRM Online

6 FAQs on California's Meal and Rest Break Rules

California's meal and rest break rules are extremely technical and nuanced—and a failure to properly comply with them can result in penalties. Here are answers to six frequently asked questions regarding compliance with this intricate area of California labor and employment law.  

(SHRM Online)

Hold Managers Accountable for California Meal-Break Compliance

If businesses don't ensure their employees have a chance to take meal and rest breaks, the penalties can mount quickly. Meal breaks can be particularly tricky. Here's how to help managers follow the law and ensure your business complies with meal-break requirements.

(SHRM Online)

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