California Supreme Court Rules It Is Unlawful For Employers to Round Meal Periods

Wage and hour violations can occur in many different ways. Sometimes employers may require off-the-clock work or miscalculate pay. Wage theft can also take place in relation to rest breaks and meal periods.

Some employers have a policy in which they adjust the actual hours employees have worked by rounding time clock punches. For example, if an employee clocks in for work at 9:03 a.m., it may be rounded to 9 a.m. Rounding time punches can be problematic and unlawful if it results in under-compensating workers for the total hours they worked.

In a recent case, the California Supreme Court considered the policy of rounding time punches in relation to meal periods. A lawsuit was filed in 2014 against AMN Services, a health care services and staffing company. The plaintiff, Donohue, claimed that the employer’s rounding of meal period times was unlawful as it resulted in short or delayed meal periods for which employees were not paid premiums.

The court ruled that employers are not allowed to round time punches for employees’ meal periods. Doing so is a violation of state law, even if the amount in question is small. The court discussed the breaks in relation to employees’ health, safety and wellbeing. The ruling noted that “[s]hortening or delaying a meal period by even a few minutes” may intensify stress or fatigue-related risks, particularly for employees who engage in manual labor or repetitive tasks.

Under California law, employers must give workers a 30-minute meal period for every five hours of work. The meal period must be uninterrupted and take place before the fifth hour of work ends. It can be waived upon reaching a mutual agreement if the employee works less than six hours. Employers who fail to provide a meal period that meets these conditions are required to pay the worker a premium, which is an extra hour of wages.

AMN Services had an electronic system that automatically rounded workers’ time clock punches in set increments. According to the lawsuit, the company used the time punches to identify meal periods that were delayed or under 30 minutes.

If a worker punched out for lunch one minute after the fifth hour worked or punched back in after a 28-minute break, the rounded time punches made it seem like the meal periods complied with California law. For instance, if an employee punched out at 12:02 p.m. and punched back in at 12:25 p.m., the timekeeping system would have recorded the time punches as noon and 12:30 p.m. The meal period would have been logged as 30 minutes even though it was actually only 23 minutes.

The court determined that the employer’s rounding practices meant that many employees did not take full 30-minute meal periods. Additionally, workers were not paid premium wages for meal period violations. Delayed meal periods were recorded as timely, while shortened meal periods were recorded as 30 minutes. The court also noted that employees received premium wages only if they made an extra effort to point out their meal period was short, delayed or missed entirely.

There have been several legal challenges related to an employer’s duty to keep accurate time records and pay workers for all hours worked. However, this case stands out as being the first to address whether rounding is lawful for meal periods. The court’s decision highlights the need for California employers to review their time rounding practices and stop any that are unlawful.

If you are not receiving the meal periods you are entitled to or not being paid for missed meal periods, contact Erlich Law Firm. A knowledgeable employment lawyer can help you understand your rights under California law and determine whether you may be able to pursue compensation.

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