California Supreme Court Rules Rounding Meal Periods Is Unlawful
Disclaimer: This article is for information purposes only. McCormack Law Firm is not involved in the class action against AMN services but has filed other class actions for unpaid mealtime.
California’s wage and hour laws are designed to ensure employees are paid all the wages they have earned. Employers are also required to permit them to take proper meal periods and rest breaks. Sometimes employers deliberately avoid paying workers what they are owed, while in other cases, wage violations may occur unintentionally. However, the employee is owed all due wages regardless of the employer’s motivation.
In a recent class-action lawsuit, the California Supreme Court ruled that employers cannot round time punches for meal periods. Kennedy Donohue worked for AMN Services as a nurse recruiter from 2012 to 2014. She sued her former employer for meal and rest period violations, improper wage statements and unpaid overtime.
Donohue alleged her employer used a timekeeping system in which meal period punch times were rounded to the nearest ten-minute increment, leading to pay shortages. She claimed the practice resulted in employees not being paid what they were owed for short or delayed meal periods.
For example, under the law, California employers must permit employees a 30-minute meal period that starts before the end of the fifth hour of work. If the employer only permits the employee to take even a 29 minute meal period (because, for example, an order comes in before the meal break is over), the employer must pay an additional hour of pay, known as a meal period premium wage.
Or if the meal period starts at 5 hours plus one minute (again, because business is very busy), the employee again owes the employee a penalty. However, employees cannot game the system – by deliberately delaying their breaks or coming back early to get the penalty. The claim can only succeed if there is evidence the employer did not permit the employee to take a proper break at the legally appointed time.
The Supreme Court ruled that rounding is incompatible with meal period requirements under state law. The court found that AMN’s rounding system meant that employees would be denied premium pay for delayed or short meal periods. For example, the rounding would cause a delayed meal period to appear to be timely. (A late break starting at five hours and one minute would be rounded back to five hours). The court stated that even seemingly small meal period violations “can cause substantial burdens to the employee.” The employer’s rounding policy was “incompatible” with the safeguards that meal periods are intended to provide to employees regarding their well-being, health and safety.
The Donohue decision serves as a warning for California employers who use rounding policies for meal periods. It also highlights the importance of keeping accurate time records to ensure workers are paid their full wages and receive proper meal periods.
An employer can discipline you for failing to take your break timely but only provided that your workload permits you to do so. Also, it is never proper for the employer to force you to change your timecard, so it looks like they comply with the law. An employer cannot force you to sign a complete “waiver” of your breaks except in very rare circumstances—for example, a security guard working alone at night.
If you suspect you are not being paid what you are owed, you may be able to take legal action against your employer. Contact the San Francisco employment lawyers at McCormack Law Firm to learn more.
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