CA Supreme Court: No Rounding Of Time Punches For Meal Periods

Employers should take heed of a recent decision by the California Supreme Court involving meal periods.  On February 25, 2021, the Court, in the case of Donohue v. AMN Services, LLC (2021) San Diego Superior Court, Case No. 37-2014-00012605-CU-OE-CTL, decided two questions of law on this subject, holding that:

  • Employers in California cannot engage in the practice of rounding time punches for meal periods; and
  • Time records of employees which show non-compliant meal periods raise a rebuttable presumption of meal period violations and can defeat a defendant’s dispositive motion for summary judgment.

Under Labor Code § 512(a) and Industrial Welfare Commission (IWC) Wage Order No. 4-2011, § 11(A), (B), employers must generally provide employees with one 30-minute meal period that begins no later than the end of the fifth hour of work and another 30-minute meal period that begins no later than the end of the tenth hour of work.  Under Labor Code § 226.7(c), if an employee is not provided with a compliant meal period, then “the employer shall pay the employee one additional hour of pay at the employee’s regular rate of compensation for each workday that the meal…period is not provided.”

In the Donohue case, a class action suit brought by a nurse recruiter, the defendant-employer, a healthcare staffing agency, rounded employee time punches to the nearest 10 minutes, which plaintiff claimed deprived her and others of premium pay for breaks that were cut short.  For example, if an employee clocked out for lunch at 11:02 a.m. and clocked in after lunch at 11:25 a.m., the time punches were recorded as 11:00 a.m. and 11:30 a.m., which resulted in a 23-minute meal period being recorded as 30 minutes.  In this way, despite a seemingly neutral rounding practice allowed under California law, many employees were not taking their full 30-minute meal breaks.

In its first holding, the Court underscored that “meal period provisions are designed to prevent even minor infringements on meal period requirements, and rounding is incompatible with that objective.”

Regarding meal period litigation in the context of summary judgment, although the Court found that non-compliant meal periods reflected in time records do create a rebuttable presumption of Labor Code violations, this does not mean “automatic liability” for employers; hence, the “rebuttable” aspect of all of this.  Employers could present "evidence that employees were compensated for noncompliant meal periods or that they had in fact been provided compliant meal periods during which they chose to work” in the form of “ 'representative testimony, surveys, and statistical analysis,' along with other types of evidence…” Nevertheless, according to Donohue’s attorney, “I think the Supreme Court’s ruling is going to strengthen an employees’ position when they do have that claim that they were getting denied proper breaks and the records show it.”

What then are some lessons to be had for California employers in this context?

  • Employers should ensure that their timekeeping practices precisely track a minimum 30-minute meal period.
  • An employer tactic may be to develop, with the guidance of counsel, a recordkeeping procedure which reflects that the employer is providing the employee with compliant meal periods.  This might include logging an employee's voluntary choice to forego a meal period, or to take a short or late meal period.  However, do not use any blanket waiver forms.  This method would not work for workers on crews.
  •  Employer/supervisor training and re-training on meal period and rest break policies might also be considered.  Litigation over meal periods (and rest breaks) are a continuing reality, so employers should try to be proactive with their practices and policies to avoid such claims or to be able to defend them successfully.
Concerned about your meal period compliance?  Contact the experts at McKague Rosasco LLP today for a wage and hour audit. 
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