Seeking Clarity on Rest and Meal Periods

It’s a predicament that every employer and business owner has found themselves in; ensuring that they are compliant with the Industrial Welfare Commission’s (“IWC”) orders on Rest and Meal periods while simultaneously maintaining a desired level of client service and operational efficiency.  The general rule in California is that non-exempt employees are entitled to one ten minute rest period for every four hours worked.  The rest period must be given as close to the middle of the four hour period as is reasonably practicable.  In addition, an employee is entitled to a meal break of not less than thirty minutes if they work at least five hours in a day.[i]
Sounds simple, right?  Unfortunately not.  A myriad of exceptions can apply.  For example, if an employee is only working six hours in a day, the meal period may be waived.  Certain professions, such as employees of 24-hour residential care facilities, swimmers, dancers, skaters, on-site workers engaged in construction, drilling, logging, mining or similar industries, and employees in the motion picture industry have rules allowing for fewer rest periods, more frequent rest periods, or a longer time worked prior to a meal period.  Lactating employees are entitled to a reasonable amount of additional break time.  It is important for employers to be familiar with the rules for their particular industry.
Further complicating matters is the ever murky question of who qualifies as an exempt employee.  Employees who are exempt from all IWC orders are as varied as Executive, Administrative and Professional employees, outside salespersons, any individual who is the parent, spouse, child, or legally adopted child of the employer, and any individual participating in a national service program, such as AmeriCorps.[ii]  There are many other partial exemptions.  Misclassification of an employee as exempt can lead to extremely costly wage claims.  Employers who want more assurance regarding the classification of their employees can take advantage of the California Chamber of Commerce’s “Exempt – When You’ve Properly Classified” webinar.[iii]
Luckily for employers, the California State Supreme Court brought some clarity to the meal break issue in a unanimous ruling last week.[iv]  The court ruled that, while employers must provide employees with the opportunity to take their legally mandated meal breaks, they are under no obligation to monitor or ensure that they have done so.  However, the court allowed similar claims regarding rest break violations to proceed.
The complex issues of exempt vs. non-exempt and proper meal and rest periods will, in all likelihood, continue to be further clarified in the courts.  In the meantime, it is in the best interest of both employers and employees to ensure that compliance with the appropriate IWC orders are observed in every workplace.  By doing so, employers can ensure that they are protected from wage claims and that their workforce is happy, healthy and productive.  Employees can ensure that not only are they given the rights they deserve, but that their fellow employees are also not being taken advantage of.  Employees who believe they are being denied their appropriate meal and rest periods should file a wage claim with the Department of Labor Standards Enforcement.[v]