Mere Knowledge of Missed Meal and Rest Breaks Not Enough to Establish Employer Liability

Employer Knowledge of Employees Skipping Meal and/or Rest Breaks Alone Is Insufficient to Establish Liability

California employers, including staffing agencies that provide temporary employees to their clients, are not required to police staff to ensure compliance with meal period obligations or to investigate time records to uncover possible violations.  The California Labor Code guarantees that an employee must be provided a meal period of at least 30 minutes after no more than five hours in a workday.  If an employer violates these requirements, it must then pay the employee premium wages. In Serrano v. Aerotek, Inc. (2018) 21 Cal.App.5th 773, the court held that an employer is not required to “police meal breaks and ensure no work thereafter is performed,” in addition, “[p]roof an employer had knowledge of employees working through meal periods will not alone subject the employer to liability for premium pay.”

In Serrano, the company hired the plaintiff to work as a temporary hourly employee at Bay Bread.  On several days in which the plaintiff worked more than six hours, she took her meal break more than five hours after beginning work, or in some instances, did not take a meal break at all.  However, prior to beginning work, the plaintiff signed acknowledgement forms confirming the receipt of the company’s employee handbook and forms waiving a meal period on any day she worked no more than six hours.  The company’s employee manual also contained its policy on meal breaks and explicitly stated that if an employee was being prevented from taking his or her meal break, that employee should report it to the company.  In addition, the company also contractually obligated Bay Bread to comply with California wage and hour laws.

Moreover the company, along with Bay Bread, hosted trainings on its employment policies, which included its meal period policies.  Therefore, not only was there a policy in place, but proper, legal safeguards were put in place to ensure compliance.  While the plaintiff’s time records indicated that she was taking her meal breaks late or completely foregoing meal breaks, the court held that was not enough to establish that the company had knowledge that the plaintiff was not taking her meal breaks.  Lastly, the court held that even actual or constructive knowledge that an employee is not taking their meal breaks within the first five hours of work does not establish liability because an employer has no obligation to ensure that employees actually take provided breaks.

What This Means for Employers:

This means that an employer’s knowledge that an employee is not taking appropriate meal and break times is insufficient to establish liability.  If the employer provides meal periods at the appropriate time, does not discourage employees from taking meal breaks or encourage employees to skip meal breaks, and if it has legal safeguards in place to ensure implementation of its policies, then it has fulfilled its duty.  This case is also a good reminder for staffing agencies and their clients, as well as joint employers to take the extra step and perform a joint review to clarify and delineate each party’s responsibilities.  For any questions or concerns regarding wage and hour violations contact Barsamian & Moody.

The goal of this article is to provide employers with current labor and employment law information.  The contents should neither be interpreted as, nor construed as legal advice or opinion.  The reader should consult with Barsamian & Moody at (559) 248-2360 for individual responses to questions or concerns regarding any given situation.