Q: Am I required to provide meal and rest periods when there is only one employee on duty?
A: Yes, California employers are required to provide meal and rest periods to their employees, but the law provides options when there is only one employee on duty.
In California, the general rule is that employees who work for more than five hours must be provided with a 30-minute duty-free unpaid meal period, and employees who work more than 1.5 hours must be permitted to take a paid duty-free rest period of at least 10 minutes per four hours of work, or major fraction thereof. Employees must be free to leave the worksite during meal and rest periods. Penalties may be assessed if an employer does not provide timely, duty-free rest and meal periods.
If there is only one employee on duty, then the employee and employer may enter into a written on-duty meal period agreement when the nature of the work prevents an employee from being relieved of all duty during the meal period. In Videau v. Caritas Management Corp., the employee was a hotel front desk clerk who worked the graveyard or swing shift alone. Mr. Videau alleged meal and rest period violations. The Appellate Division of the San Francisco County Superior Court recently ruled that the on-duty meal period agreement in this case was valid because: (1) the employer provided the employee with an opportunity to take a 30-minute off-duty meal period every day; (2) the nature of the job precluded the employee from taking an uninterrupted, off-duty 30-minute meal break because the employee worked alone; (3) the employee voluntarily agreed to take an on-duty meal period and signed a valid on-duty meal period agreement; and (4) the on-duty agreement was in writing and expressly stated that the employee was free to revoke the agreement at any time.
The court further ruled that the employer did not violate the rest period requirement because the employee was instructed by his supervisors to take two 15-minute rest periods during his eight-hour shift, and he was provided with signs to put up during his rest period, directing people to come back after the rest period. The court rejected the employee’s argument that he was not allowed to leave the worksite during his rest periods, explaining that the reality of any rest period is that an employee generally can travel at most five minutes from the worksite before returning to make it back to work on time, and even though the time constraint may have the effect of keeping the employee on the worksite premises, such a constraint does not violate the rest period requirement.
An important fact in the court’s ruling is that the employee was not “on-call” or subject to employer control during his rest periods — he did not carry a pager, walkie-talkie or radio, nor was he required to remain vigilant and to respond when needs arise. Further, if the rest period was interrupted for any reason, the employee was authorized and permitted to take his full 15-minute rest break after the interruption. The court rejected the argument that the employer had a broad and intrusive degree of control during the rest breaks.
This decision is a rare win for California employers and underscores the importance of compliance with meal and rest period requirements.
Sara Boyns is a lawyer with Fenton & Keller in Monterey. This column is intended to answer questions of general interest and should not be construed as legal advice. Mail queries to “Workplace Law,” c/o The Monterey Herald, Box 271, Monterey 93942 or to email@example.com.
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