What does it mean to be “off-duty” during lunch breaks?

What does it mean to be  “off-duty” during lunch breaks?

Q: I work  in a hospital on 12-hour shifts. During my meal break, I sometimes go to our break lounge to take a nap. My supervisor told me sleeping is forbidden. Since it is my 30-minute meal break, I feel that I should be able to spend it however I want. What are my rights?

A: If it is your meal break, you should be allowed to spend it however you want, including taking a nap. Under California law, employers must provide a 30-minute uninterrupted meal period to employees for every 5 hours of work. “Providing” a meal period means the employer must provide an off-duty meal period. “Off-duty” means:

Employees are relieved of all duty for an uninterrupted period of 30 minutes

Employees are free to leave the workplace if they wish.

Employer gives up control over the employees’ activities during the break.

It can be argued that employers who dictate what their employees should do during their breaks are effectively requiring them to remain “on duty” and must, therefore, pay them.  This is exactly what a class of sanitation workers, employed by the city of Los Angeles, claimed when they filed a lawsuit against the city for missed meal wages. Trash truck driver, Jose Gravina, first sued the city claiming he was regularly denied meal breaks and been disciplined for napping during his meal break. The case later became a class action.

The Bureau of Sanitation reportedly imposed the no-nap rule on its workers in an effort to prevent the public or news cameras catching city employees sleeping in their trucks. The city also prohibited its employees from gathering in one spot for a meal or traveling to locations away from their pickup routes during lunch breaks.

The trial court judge noted: “The city does impose duties during meal periods: the duties to stay awake and to avoid congregating. The drivers are thus subject to the city’s control during their meal periods.” The Court of Appeal agreed. After the California Supreme Court declined to review the case, the city and the drivers eventually have agreed to settle the case for $26 million for the benefit about 1,100 sanitation workers.

If an employer puts any restrictions on an employee’s meal period, the employer is still continuing to exert control over the employee. If the employee remains under the control of the employer, then the employee must be compensated.

The law on providing off-duty meal breaks exists to safeguard the health and safety of our workers, and to safeguard the public as well. A sleep-deprived truck driver or a fatigued nurse may be a danger not only to themselves but to those they serve. Thirty minutes may alleviate these dangers.

There is a difference between sleeping on the job and sleeping during your legally-mandated off-duty break. The first one may get you fired, but the second is your right. If your employer does not seem to understand this distinction, feel free to contact us to find out if we can help you.

 

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The Law Offices of C. Joe Sayas, Jr. welcomes inquiries about this topic. All inquiries are confidential and at no-cost. You can contact the office at (818) 291-0088 or visit www.joesayaslaw.com or our Facebook page Joe Sayas Law. [C. Joe Sayas, Jr., Esq. is an experienced trial attorney who has successfully recovered wages and other monetary damages for thousands of employees and consumers. He was named Top Labor & Employment Attorney in California by the Daily Journal, consistently selected as Super Lawyer by the Los Angeles Magazine, and is the recipient of PABA’s Community Champion Award for 2016.]

 

 

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