This post explores two questions that arise with respect to meal break laws in California: What is the “first five hours” rule, and what role do an employer’s time keeping records play in meal break lawsuits. As explained below, the California Supreme Court has resolved these questions in a way that protects workers and ensures that they get the meal breaks that they are entitled to under law.
The First Five Hours Rule
The first five hours rule is pretty simple. Under normal circumstances, if an employee works more than five hours in a workday, an employer must provide a 30 minute, uninterrupted meal break. In the seminal case of Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court (2012) 53 Cal.4th 1004, 1042 (Brinker), the California Supreme Court clarified that this meal period must occur within the first five hours of work.
That holding in Brinker is grounded in California Labor Code section 512(b), which provides as follows:
Notwithstanding subdivision (a), the Industrial Welfare Commission may adopt a working condition order permitting a meal period to commence after six hours of work if the commission determines that the order is consistent with the health and welfare of the affected employees.
The language in section 512(b) thus indicates that section 512(a) was intended to mandate that the first meal period ordinarily occur during the first five hours of work. Otherwise, there would be no reason for section 512(b). As the Court concluded, “Accordingly, first meal periods must start after no more than five hours.” Id.
The Role of Employer Time Keeping in Meal Break Cases
In the more recent case of Donohue v. AMN Services, LLC (2021) 11 Cal.5th 58, the California Supreme Court considered the important question of what role employers’ time keeping records play in meal period litigation. There, the Court adopted “in full” the concurring opinion of Justice Kathryn Werdegar in Brinker, holding that employers have an obligation “both to relieve their employees for at least one meal period for shifts over five hours” and, critically, to record having done so.
Justice Werdegar’s concurrence is consistent with a long history of requiring employers to keep certain records regarding their employees and to face certain consequences if they fail to do so. Both the United States Supreme Court and California courts have adopted this approach. See, for example, Anderson v. Mt. Clemens Pottery Co. (1946) 328 U.S. 680, 686–688; Ghazaryan v. Diva Limousine, Ltd. (2008) 169 Cal.App.4th 1524, 1536, fn. 11;and Cicairos v. Summit Logistics, Inc. (2005) 133 Cal.App.4th 949, 961 (“[W]here the employer has failed to keep records required by statute, the consequences for such failure should fall on the employer, not the employee.”).
In Donohue, the California Supreme Court took this analysis one step further. There, the Court explained that if an employer’s time keeping records show no meal period for a given shift over five hours, a rebuttable presumption arises that the employee was not relieved of duty and no meal period was provided. 11 Cal.5th 58.
What This Means for You
If you are working shifts that are longer than five hours, then you are entitled to a 30 minute uninterrupted meal break. That meal break must come within the first five hours of your shift. Otherwise, your employer is breaking the law and you are entitled to compensation at the rate of one hour of your regular rate of pay for each workday where the violation occurs.
Furthermore, if your timekeeping records show either no meal breaks or short meal breaks within your first five hours of work, then that will serve to create a rebuttable presumption that you did not receive a meal break as required by law. In other words, it will be very difficult for your employer to show that you were offered a meal break but decided to waive it.
The attorneys at Hunter Pyle Law have handled meal break claims throughout California, from San Diego to Los Angeles to Oakland and San Francisco to Sacramento. If you have questions about your meal breaks at work, feel free to contact us at email@example.com or at (510) 444-4400.