What California’s New Meal Break Laws Mean for Your Customers

By: Sarah Taylor, Solution Manager at TimeForge

If you’ve ever managed staff, you’re probably familiar with meal break laws. However, new legislation passed earlier this year makes these laws even more precise for businesses in California. Under the new law, employers can’t round meal break times to the nearest 5 or 10 minutes; meal period rounding is now illegal. Smart employers need a compliance plan to avoid facing legal action and fines. Here’s some important info about the new legislation – and how you can help your California customers stay compliant.

California Meal Break Laws
First, a little background about what the law already says about breaks in California:

Employers must give employees a 30 minute meal break, no later than 5 hours after their shift starts. After an employee works 10 hours, they’re entitled to another 30 minute break. Every 4 hours, employers have to give employees a 10 minute break. The breaks have to be uninterrupted time where the employee is completely free of work obligations. Employees can freely decide to work on their break, but if a case goes to court, it’s up to the employer to prove it was the employee’s choice. That’s why it’s important to get it in writing when employees waive their breaks.

Missed breaks, late breaks, or too-short breaks can mean fines for your California customers. If employees can’t take proper breaks, employers have to pay employees one hour of additional time at their current rate. In fact, your customers can be liable for up to 4 years of meal break fines if they haven’t been paying out premium wages! If it goes to court, fines and attorney fees could cost your customers as much as $520 per non-compliant meal break. It’s also important to note that Errors & Omissions Insurance and Liability insurance won’t cover these fines.

The New Ruling on Rounding
The supreme court ruling about rounding time was based on Donohue v. AMN Services, LLC, a court case involving a healthcare company that hired temporary nurses. The company was rounding shift times and break times to the nearest 10 minutes. For example, they’d count a meal break from 12:04 to 12:27 as 30 minutes, even though it’s only 23 minutes.

Why does it matter? The court ruled that for meal breaks, every minute counts. A 22 minute break is significantly shorter than a 30 minute one. AMN argued that their system balances out over time, since longer meal breaks are rounded down. But ultimately, the court decided that a longer meal break one day doesn’t make up for a shorter one on another day. It’s a health and safety issue, not a payment issue.

The result is that it’s now illegal to round time for meal breaks to the nearest time increment in California. Employers have to record exact meal break times and length, and rounded times create an assumption of fault. Rounding shift times might still be legal, but it’s probably not worth taking the chance.

How You Can Help Your Customers: 3 Steps to Compliance
The responsibility to keep accurate time always falls on your customer, the employer. If employees take legal action, it’s up to your customers to prove that their breaks are compliant. Every time there’s a record of a too-short meal break, rounded times, or no record at all, employers are liable. That means that inaccurate records can still cost employers, even if they’re giving employees proper breaks.

Another problem is that it’s also pretty common for employees to take meal breaks late or cut them short. This is especially true in retail and service industries, where the unexpected happens all the time. For retailers, covering their legal bases is just as important as keeping their customers happy.

Here are three important steps your customers can take to become (and stay) compliant with California’s new meal break laws:

Step 1: Stop Rounding!
If your customers are rounding time, you should let them know that they need to stop and replace their systems with one that lets them calculate exact times. This includes exact records of clock-ins, clock-outs, meal periods, and rest breaks. The system should be able to track employee time down to the minute.

Step 2: Have a Compliance Plan
Your customers may not realize it, but they need to have a compliance plan. Having a compliance plan means having a system to monitor breaks and pay employees out for missed ones. A business’s compliance plan should include proper documentation of short, delayed, or missed breaks and an action plan for when they happen.

Step 3: Communicate the Compliance Plan
Your customers will need to train all management staff and employees on the importance of legal breaks and timekeeping. When an employer is starting a new compliance plan, explaining why it’s important will help everyone get on board. We recommend company-wide compliance training and certification, followed by attestations from employees that they understand and will abide by the plan.

Next Steps for Customers in California
The new time rounding legislation affects all industries, but it’s particularly important for retail and service industries to take note. Busy lunch rushes and retail holidays mean that sometimes missed breaks are an inevitability. But that doesn’t mean they have to be a liability for your customers.

Labor management platforms, such as TimeForge, can help retailers stay compliant with even the most complex California labor laws by:

  • Automating meal and rest penalties so that when an employee is unable to take a break, they get an extra hour of pay automatically.
  • Distributing and scheduling breaks so that they work for the law and for the business.
  • Alerterting managers every time a break violation occurs, so that managers can take swift action.
  • Preventing penalized shifts (e.g. “clopens”) from making it on to the schedule in the first place.

Visit our website to learn more about proactive labor compliance or to read up on California overtime laws.