What is an on-duty meal period?
An on-duty meal period is one in which the employee is not relieved of all duties. In California, on-duty meal periods are only legal under certain narrow circumstances. On-duty meal periods are only legal if:
- The nature of the work prevents an employee from being relieved of all duty.
- The employer and the employee agree to on-duty meal periods in writing.
- The meal period is paid.
- The agreement to waive the meal period can be revoked at any time in writing by the employee.
Meal Period Regulations in California
California employers are generally required to provide an unpaid, off-duty meal period of at least 30 uninterrupted minutes to its non-exempt employees for every five hours of work. During these meal periods, employees must be relieved of all duties and employers must relinquish control over their activities. Employers may not impede or discourage employees from taking their breaks. See Brinker v. Superior Court (2012) 53 Cal.4th 1004; California Labor Code §226.7; 8 Cal. Code Regs. §11040. If an employee is not afforded a 30-minute uninterrupted meal break for every five hours worked, the employer must compensate the employee for one additional hour of pay for each workday that the meal break is missed. California Labor Code §226.7.
Sometimes, in an attempt to circumvent this law, employers ask employees to sign forms agreeing to take “on-duty” meal periods. However, on-duty meal periods are permissible only under very limited circumstances, as described above.
Under this narrow exception to the general rule that employers must provide off-duty meal periods, an employer who opts to implement on-duty meal periods carries the burden of establishing that the facts justify an on-duty meal period. Abdullah v. U.S. Sec. Assocs., 731 F.3d 952, 961 (9th Cir. Cal. 2013); see also Dynabursky v. AlliedBarton Sec. Servs. LP, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 36915, 11-12 (C.D. Cal. Jan. 29, 2014). Because on-duty meal periods are limited alternatives to the off-duty meal requirement, various factors are considered when analyzing employer-mandated on-duty meal periods. If an employer has a qualified representative who can perform the duties, the on-duty meal exception may not apply. Dynabursky v. AlliedBarton Sec. Servs. LP, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 36915, 11-12 (C.D. Cal. Jan. 29, 2014) (citations omitted). However, if a position calls for an employee to be on duty at all times and that employee is the sole employee of a particular employer, the exception may apply.
Hunter Pyle Law recently represented a client whose employer had a blanket policy mandating that all dispatchers agree to “on-duty” meal breaks. The employer required our client to sign an on-duty meal period agreement despite the fact that she worked with one to two other dispatchers at all times. The other dispatchers could have relieved our client of her duties. Our firm was able to settle this case before filing a lawsuit on favorable terms on the grounds that the employer could not meet its burden in demonstrating that the on-duty meal period exception was justifiable.
If you have questions about your meal periods, on-duty meal agreements, or would like to speak with an experienced wage and hour attorney, please contact Hunter Pyle Law at 510.444.4400, or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, for a free consultation.