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Meal breaks: You must make them available; you don’t have to force employees to eat

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in Compensation and Benefits

The Court of Appeal of California has ruled that employers are only required to make meal and other breaks available to employees. They don’t have to force employees to take those breaks or eat a meal.

Your only obligation: Make sure that no work is required to be performed during scheduled break time.

Recent case: Kevin Tien and other employees working for Tenet Healthcare throughout California sued over alleged violations of break and meal-time regulations. Essentially, Tien claimed that there were times that Tenet didn’t provide rest or meal breaks.

Tenet said it did provide the opportunity for rest and meal breaks, but that sometimes employees didn’t take advantage of the opportunity. The employees argued that breaks should be mandatory and enforced.

The court disagreed. It concluded that by making the breaks available and structuring the work so em­­­­­ployees could actually take the breaks, the employer had met its obligation. Essen­tially, the company was merely required to lead the horse to the water, not to make him drink. (Tien v. Tenet Healthcare, No. B214333, Court of Appeal of California, 2nd Appellate District, 2011)

Final note: This was just one of several wage-and-hour issues raised by this case. Other issues included whether employee paychecks were understandable and whether em­ployers that fail to provide breaks automatically violate pay-on-termination rules, subjecting them to an additional penalty. Some of those issues remain unresolved.

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