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Employees must be free to do as they wish during rest periods, meal breaks

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Under California’s wage-and-hour laws, employees must be completely relieved of their duties during rest periods and meal breaks. Employers can’t count downtime during work hours as rest and meal time.

Recent case: Luis Castillo worked as a cashier at a 24-hour adult bookstore. After he was fired for alleged wrongdoing, he filed a wage-and-hour lawsuit. He claimed his employer never allowed him to take his breaks or lunch. Therefore, he argued, it owed him additional wages for every day he had worked.

The court agreed, despite the employer’s argument that there were plenty of times when no one patronized the store, leaving Castillo with nothing to do but eat his lunch or rest.

The court said breaks and meal periods must be designed to allow the employee complete relief from work duties. Castillo wasn’t allowed to leave the store or his workstation, so the employer violated the law. (Castillo v. Beverly Books, No. B214945, Court of Appeal of California, 2nd Appellate Division, 2010)

Final note: California law does permit an “on-duty” meal period under limited circumstances. The nature of the work must prevent the employee from being relieved of all duties, and the employee and the employer must have a written agreement that meals will be taken on-the-job. The employee can, in writing, revoke the agreement at any time. The meal period is considered paid time.

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