[COLUMN] Employers must provide timely, uninterrupted and duty-free meal and rest breaks

Q: MY co-workers and I are having problems not getting our meal breaks at work.  We work 12-hour shifts, and the handbook says we’re supposed to get 2 meal breaks.  The employer had each of us sign a waiver giving up one of our meal breaks when we were hired.  But it’s hard to even get the one meal break we’re supposed to have.  It’s so busy that we regularly work 8 hours straight before you get so hungry that you just have to stop to eat.  When that happens, we sometimes can do the full 30 minutes, but if it’s really hectic, we just take 10 minutes to eat something really quick at our workstations.  When our manager sees on our time record that we didn’t get a 30-minute break, she makes us sign another waiver to show we consented to not getting it.  It doesn’t seem right.  Is this allowed?

A: No, that is not allowed.  Under California law, if you work a shift of more than 10 hours, you are entitled to two 30-minute meal periods.  You may choose to waive one of those meal breaks by mutual consent with your employer, but California law does not allow for waiver of both of the two meal breaks; you’re guaranteed at least one. For each day that you did not receive at least one, uninterrupted and duty-free meal period of at least 30 minutes, your employer owed you an extra hour of wages, calculated at your regular hourly rate of pay.

The fact that your work duties did not allow you to take a meal break until 8 hours into your shift was also a violation.  Under California law, your meal period must start before the end of the 5th hour of your shift.  For example, if your shift starts at 8:00 a.m., then your meal break must start before 1:00 p.m. to be considered timely.  For each day that you got an untimely, or late, meal period, your employer owed you an extra hour of wages, calculated at your regular hourly rate of pay.

You didn’t mention rest breaks, but your description of the busy nature of your workplace makes it likely that there were also rest-break violations committed by your employer. Under California law, employees must be allowed to take a 10-minute rest break for each 4 hours of work, or major fraction thereof.  With a 12-hour shift, you’re entitled to three 10-minute rest periods.  If your work demands prevented you the opportunity to take any of those rest periods, then your employer owed you an extra hour of wages, calculated at your regular hourly rate of pay, for each day you were denied such opportunity.

California laws and policies make clear that meal and rest breaks are crucial to protect employee health and productivity.  The premium wages required under California law for missed meal and rest breaks are wages that you have earned and are owed to you.  You can pursue an action to recover those unpaid wages, including a potential class action that would allow you and your similarly-treated co-workers to recover the monies owed to you, plus interest, as well as money penalties for the employer’s violations.

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The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of the Asian Journal, its management, editorial board and staff.

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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. [For more than 25 years, C. Joe Sayas, Jr., Esq. 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, selected as Super Lawyer by the Los Angeles Magazine for 11 years, and is a past Presidential Awardee for Outstanding Filipino Overseas.]

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