California Supreme Court Strikes Down “Rounding” of Time Punches for Meal Periods

California law requires that employers provide employees with an uninterrupted meal period “of not less than 30 minutes” whenever an employee works for more than five hours.  (If the employee works less than six hours, the meal period can be waived by mutual consent).  If a meal period is required, it must be provided “before the end of the fifth hour worked.”  If an employer fails to provide a meal period in accordance with these requirements, it must pay the employee one additional hour of pay as a “meal period premium.”  The practice of “rounding” time punches—adjusting the hours that an employee has actually worked to the nearest preset time increment—is generally lawful where it does not result, over the passage of time, in undercompensating employees for all time they actually worked.  In such situations, an employer is generally required to keep both actual time records, as well as the rounded time records.

The question arose of whether a rounding practice was lawful in the context of meal periods.

On February 25, 2021, the California Supreme Court answered that question in Donohue v. AMN Services, LLC.  The Court held that employers cannot engage in the practice of rounding time punches in the meal period context.  Time records showing non-compliant meal periods also raise a rebuttable presumption of meal period violations. Similarly, the absence of meal period time records raises the same presumption. This reinforced a concurring decision made in the earlier case of Brinker Restaurant Corp. Superior Court,53 Cal. 4th 1004 (2012).

In Donohue, the employer had a practice of rounding all time clock punches, including for meal periods.  The timekeeping system used by the employer recorded non-compliant meal periods as compliant, thus depriving employees of meal period premiums to which they were arguably entitled.  Given the relatively short length of a 30-minute meal period, the potential incursion that might result from rounding is significant.  Small rounding errors can amount to a significant infringement on an employee’s right to a 30-minute meal break.  The Court noted the legislative intent for enacting the meal period provisions is to protect working conditions and employee health and safety.

This decision reinforces the importance of a timely, recorded, complete 30 minute meal break. For further information, please consult your labor attorney.

By Jerry P.S. Chang | April 6, 2021

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