Automatic Time Deductions for Missed Meal Breaks Are Illegal

Posted by Joe Sayas | Oct 04, 2019

Q:        I am a full-time hourly employee. While we were told that we have a 30-minute unpaid lunch break every day, we usually cannot take breaks due to the heavy workload. But the employer still deducts 30 minutes for lunch from our work hours. Is this legal?

 A:        No. If you did not take your full lunch break, you should not be deducted 30 minutes. In fact, not only should there be no deduction, your employer should also pay you an additional one hour at your regular hourly rate for not providing you a 30-minute meal period.       

 California law requires employers to provide a 30-minute uninterrupted meal period to employees for every 5 hours of work. Merely offering or allowing a meal break is not enough. The employer must affirmatively perform the following obligations:

 Relieve the employee of all duty for 30 minutes within the first 5 hours of work

  1. Give employees the freedom to leave the workplace during breaks
  2. Relinquish control over the employees' activities during breaks
  3. Employees should not be impeded or discouraged from taking breaks

In light of these rules, the employer fails in its legal duty to provide meal breaks if:

Employees were not relieved of ALL duties but required attend to work-related issues while on breaks.

  1. Employees are required to remain on the work premises where their breaks are interrupted.
  2. Meal breaks are not scheduled and employees are merely told to take a break when not busy, even though work is continuous and always busy.

Companies who ignore break time rules eventually learn the hard way that they cannot sacrifice the employees' welfare for the company's bottom line. A group of Kraft Heinz Food Co. employees sued their employer for failure to provide meal breaks.

The employees alleged that they were underpaid all wages, including overtime wages, owed to them, due to improper calculations of their hours worked. The employees alleged that the company's software automatically deducted, without any punch-in or punch-out, a 30-minute meal period for shifts longer than six hours.  The employees claimed that this employer-instituted rounding policy in the company's time-keeping system caused a record that meal periods were taken even though they were not. The employer did not inquire into whether a meal period was actually provided to the employee or not.

The employees also claimed that their employer manually edited their time records, without their consent, in order to reflect that they took breaks in 15- or 30-minute periods. This practice caused the employees to be underpaid. The employer did not pay the employees for those hours when they should have been provided meal periods but were not.  

The employer has agreed to pay at least $3 million to settle these claims. About 4,000 production and packaging workers are said to benefit from the settlement.

Employers whose business necessities prevent them from giving lunch breaks cannot simply ignore the lunch break law as if it does not exist. Lawsuits such as the above case continue to serve as an important lesson to employers that the needs of the business do not justify violations of lunch break laws.

About the Author

Joe Sayas

C. JOE SAYAS, JR., Esq. Recognized as one of California's top employment and labor law attorneys by the Daily Journal, C. Joe Sayas, Jr. has devoted his more than 25-year litigation career to protecting workers' and consumer rights. He has fought for employees discriminated due to disability, ra...

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