HR Management & Compliance

Meal And Rest Periods: Employers Settle Lawsuits Claiming Back Overtime For Missed Breaks; Know The Rules–And The Penalties

Do you know when you’re required to provide employees with meal and rest breaks? Are you following the rules? If not, you could be headed toward an expensive legal battle. And a recent spate of wage and hour lawsuits charging employers with violating meal and rest break provisions is focusing attention on these rules.

Employees Sue Over Missed Meal Breaks

In one recent case, ATC Distribution Group Inc. agreed to pay more than $35,000 to settle a lawsuit over meal breaks filed in a San Diego court. ATC’s employees charged the company had automatically deducted 30 minutes from employees’ daily work time for meal breaks regardless of whether the breaks actually occurred. The employees sought 30 minutes’ back pay, plus penalties, for each day they were improperly charged for a lunch break.

In another case, a card casino was hit with a class action lawsuit alleging it didn’t provide meal and rest breaks to “proposition players,” who are card room employees who join a shorthanded game or who help a game get going. The casino argued it complied with the law and that employees waived meal breaks in writing. But now the casino has agreed to pay $475,000 to settle the suit, which was filed in a Los Angeles court.

The HR Management & Compliance Report: How To Comply with California Wage & Hour Law, explains everything you need to know to stay in compliance with the state’s complex and ever-changing rules, laws, and regulations in this area. Coverage on bonuses, meal and rest breaks, overtime, alternative workweeks, final paychecks, and more.

What Are The Rules?

To stay out of trouble, it’s important to know when you have to provide meal and rest breaks and how to properly calculate employee pay. Here’s an overview of the rules, which only apply to nonexempt employees:

  1. Meal breaks. Employees who work at least five hours in the workday must receive an unpaid meal period of not less than 30 minutes. The meal period may be waived if the employer and employee agree, as long as the employee won’t work more than six hours. Although not necessary, it’s a good idea to put the agreement in writing.

    A second meal period is required if the employee will work more than 10 hours. This second meal period can be waived if the total hours worked don’t exceed 12 and the first meal period wasn’t waived.

    Unless the employee is relieved of all duty during a meal period, the mealtime will be counted as time worked—which means you have to pay the employee for the time. However, “on-duty” meal periods are permitted only when the nature of the work prevents the employee from going off-duty and there is a written agreement to the on-duty paid meal period. The agreement must state that the employee may revoke the waiver at any time.Note there are special meal-period rules for health-care industry workers.


  2. Rest breaks. You must permit employees to take paid 10-minute rest breaks for each four hours worked. The breaks generally should be in the middle of the work period. You don’t have to provide rest breaks for employees who work fewer than 3-1/2 hours. Keep in mind that permitting employees to use toilet facilities doesn’t meet your rest period obligation. Rest period time is counted as time worked.

Back Overtime And Penalties

The consequences for not providing appropriate meal and/or rest periods can be expensive. If an employee works through a required meal and/or rest break and you don’t pay them for that time, you will owe the person back wages and possibly overtime. In addition, you can get hit with a variety of penalties. For example, the Labor Commissioner can assess up to $50 per employee for each pay period an employee was underpaid, and $100 for subsequent violations. Plus, you can get slapped with a penalty equal to one hour of pay, at the employee’s regular rate, for each meal or rest period missed—in addition to what you owe the employee for the time worked.

Protect Yourself—And Your Employees

To avoid being the next target of an employee wage and hour lawsuit, and to make sure employees get needed breaks, review your meal and rest period policies and practices to ensure they comply with the current law. Make sure managers and supervisors understand that informal agreements with employees to work through required meal or rest periods are illegal. And require managers to relieve employees of all duty during lunch or other meal breaks. Also, keep accurate documentation of employee time, including when meal periods begin and end, as well as records of written meal-period waivers.

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