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Offer meal breaks—and tell workers to take them

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California’s Labor Code provides substantial protection for hourly workers by requiring that their employers offer meal breaks during long shifts. For example, the Labor Code says that employees who work a shift of at least five hours are entitled to a 30-minute meal break.

But what happens if you tell employees when to take their meal breaks, and they don’t?

As long as you have been diligent in providing the time for meal breaks and have made it clear that employees must take breaks, you’ll be fine.

Recent case: Fred Brinkley worked as a property manager for Public Storage for just a few months before he was fired.

He was an hourly employee and tried to parlay his short employment stint with the company into a class-action wage-and-hour case. Among his allegations was that he and other employees sometimes didn’t take the 30-minute meal breaks the California Labor Code says employees are entitled to if they work a shift longer than five hours.

But Public Storage told the court that it provided the breaks and expected employees to take them. In fact, when employees tried to skip meals, the company punished them.

The court agreed with the company. It said the law neither obligates employees to take the breaks, nor requires employers
to force employees to take the breaks. It was enough that the company tried valiantly to get employees to take the meal periods. (Brinkley v. Public Storage, No. B200513, Court of Appeal of California, 2nd Appellate District, 2008)

Final note: T
he California Supreme Court has agreed to hear an important case concerning employers’ obligations for meal breaks. Expect further clarification soon.

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