California Supreme Court Disapproves of Rounding Meal Periods

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On February 25, 2021, in In Donohue v. AMN Services, LLC (2021) San Diego Superior Court, Case No. 37-2014-00012605-CU-OE-CTL, the California Supreme Court weighed in on two important issues pertaining to meal periods.  First, the Court held that California employers cannot round time punches for meal periods (although it is arguably permissible for work start and stop times).  Second, the Court held that employee time records showing non-compliant meal periods raise a rebuttable presumption of meal period violations and are sufficient to defeat a defendant’s dispositive motion for summary judgment. The Court emphasized that California’s meal period requirements are designed to prevent even minor infringements on employees’ meal periods and that rounding employees’ meal period time punches for even a de minimus amount violates state law.

In Donohue, the defendant-employer, a healthcare services and staffing company, used a timekeeping system that rounded employees’ time punches for meal periods to the nearest 10-minute increment.  For example, if an employee punched out for lunch at 11:03 a.m. (rounded back to 11:00 a.m.) and punched back in at 11:24 a.m. (rounded forward to 11:30 a.m.), the system recorded a 30-minute meal period (even though only 21 minutes had actually elapsed).  The Court found that this rounding policy resulted in many employees not taking their full 30-minute meal breaks. The Court also noted that employees were paid a premium payment only if the employee proactively indicated that their meal period was missed, short, or late.  As a result, the Court found that there was sufficient evidence to suggest that employees worked over five hours before taking their meal break in violation of California Labor Code § 512 and Industrial Welfare Commission Wage Order No. 4-2001.  The case now heads back down to the Court of Appeals where the parties will submit further briefing on the plaintiffs’ meal period claims.

Additionally, in reversing the defendant’s motion for summary judgment win, the Court ruled that records that demonstrate a non-compliant meal period raise a rebuttable presumption of labor code violations, which, the Court clarified, can be overcome by presenting evidence that either (1) the employees were compensated for noncompliant meals or (2) the employees were provided compliant, 30-minute, duty-free meal periods during which time the employee voluntarily chose to work. 

The Donohue decision serves as helpful guidance on two fronts.  First, it should be used as a warning for employers who use rounding policies for recording meal periods.  Employers who apply time rounding policies in the meal period context likely need to suspend these practices.  Moreover, based on the court’s guidance, employers that utilize general rounding practices should be wary of the potential problems that rounding policies may cause.  Second, employers should utilize paper or electronic acknowledgement forms from employees that confirm that employees are taking their meal breaks and rest breaks on a daily basis or, to the extent they are not, that this is documented as either a voluntary decision by the employee, or if it is not voluntary, that the employee is paid their statutory premium payment. 

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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