In the most significant meal periods decision in almost ten years, the California Supreme Court on February 25, 2021 decided Donohue v. AMN Services, LLC.
While the Court in Donohue made clear that as long as meal periods are provided, employers do not have to “police” employees and force them to take meal periods, the Court also held when time records show an employee failed to take a compliant meal period, it will be presumed that the employer failed to provide a proper meal period to the employee. Any time records show a meal period was short, late, or not recorded at all, the Court held that the employer will have the burden of proving that it did, in fact, provide a compliant meal period.
This does not mean “automatic liability” for employers, however. The Court made clear that employers can rebut the presumption by showing that employees were compensated for noncompliant meal periods – or that they had, in fact, been provided compliant meal periods during which the employees voluntarily chose to work.
Significantly, the Donohue Court also held that employers cannot round time punches by adjusting the hours worked to the nearest present time increment. While the Court did not address the use of rounding outside the context of meal periods, the Court did strongly suggest that – as technology continues to evolve and technological advances help employers track time more precisely – the “practical advantages of rounding policies may diminish further.” The Court explicitly encouraged use of an electronic timekeeping system that included a dropdown menu where employees could indicate whether they were provided a compliant meal period but chose to work, and that triggered premium pay for any missed, short, or delayed meal periods – without the need for “rounding” time punches.
In light of the Court’s findings and recommendations, employers would be well-served to implement precise timekeeping systems that track the amount of time that employees spend taking meal periods, and that automatically prompt employees to confirm when they have voluntarily chosen to take a short or late meal period or to skip their meal period altogether. To minimize the risk of potential future litigation, employers should make use of technologies that allow employees to record their work time precisely.
You can read the full opinion in Donohue here.