My employer is forcing me to work through meal breaks. What should I do?
California law normally requires non-exempt (hourly) employees to be provided with a lunch break of at least 30 minutes, beginning no later than the start of the fifth hour of work. Employers must relieve workers of all duties during meal breaks, including answering phone calls, helping clients, or checking emails. Employees have the freedom to spend their lunch period however and wherever they wish.
Employers usually cannot require employees to continue working during meal breaks, and must pay one extra hour of pay for each break that is missed, late, or under 30 minutes. In addition your employer is never allowed to modify your timecard or deduct pay for a meal break that you did not take—if this happens, your employer owes you all your unpaid wages and overtime plus additional penalties.
There are some exceptions to the meal break rule, but they are rare. An employer may require an employee to sign an agreement stating they will take an “on-duty” lunch break—but only the nature of the work prevents an employee from being relieved of all duty. Merely being “very busy” is not sufficient grounds to qualify for this exception. In fact very few jobs qualify for this exception. However a classic example might be a security guard who works alone.
California law also allows voluntary waivers stating that the employee will waive a lunch break if they work a shift of six hours or less; or waive a second meal break if they work a shift of twelve hours or less. Some workers prefer to work straight through their shift in those circumstances. But this agreement must be voluntary and the employee must have the right to revoke it at any time.
If you deliberately decide not to take your full meal break, then your employer may have an argument that you are not owed any penalty because you simply chose not to take one. To succeed with a meal period claim, employees need to show that their employer denied or prevented their break, which may include a situation in which the employer had some policy or practice that effectively made it impossible for employees to take a break all or some of the time.
Where large numbers of employees are denied meal breaks, they may be able to file a class-action suit to get compensation for all affected employees. In a class action suit a handful of employees, or even just one employee, is the plaintiff on the case. It can even be a former employee as long as they suffered the same type of damages within the legally-required period of time, usually the prior 3 or 4 years, in California.
Meal period claims are complicated and there are many rules and exceptions so if you feel you have been denied meal breaks, or had pay deducted unfairly, it is best to get a free confidential consultation with an experienced employment attorney as soon as possible.
At McCormack Law Firm, we are dedicated to helping employees exercise their rights in the workplace, and have helped hundreds of workers recover losses for unpaid meal breaks. If you suspect your employer is unlawfully forcing you to work through meal breaks, contact our experienced San Francisco employment lawyers immediately for advice on what steps to take.
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