With very few exceptions, under California employment law nonexempt employees must have a 30 minute meal break within five hours of starting work if they work more than six hours a day, and a ten minute rest period for each four hours worked.
The rest periods must be paid, the meal break can be unpaid, and you should have employees record their "out" and "in" times for each meal break so you can be sure they are really taking the time off. How to record the time? Many larger employees use time clocks, either a punch-in-punch-out analog version, or a more modern electronic timekeeper system that tracks employee hours. Easy, right? Well, like everything about being an employer in California, the answer isn't simple.
First, meal breaks must be 30 minutes long. Time card show a 25-minute meal break? Under the law, that does not count because it is not the statutory 30 minutes of "being relieved of all duty" and you may well be subject to a labor code penalty (one hours pay for each missed 30 minute break). While a time clock can be a good way to make sure employees don't arrive late and leave early, the real cost can be much higher. An employee who regularly takes 20 minute breaks, grabs a sandwich and then comes back in and gets on with their job could cost you hundreds if not thousands of dollars extra.
Second, those rest periods. If an employee clocks out for a rest period, goes for a cigarette (yes, some employees in California do still go out for a cigarette) and then clocks back in, they have probably been out for around eight minutes, and on paper, have not taken their statutory rest period.
As a business owner, you probably have better things to do than police the parking lot, making sure smokers linger over their cigarettes. Forcing employees to take 30 minutes of unpaid lunch every day can be just as onerous. There are answers, however, and like many things about California employment law, a few steps taken now can save you money down the line.
If you use a computerized time clock system, find out if you can set it up not only to record the time an employee leaves and returns for lunch, but to prevent them clocking back in before 30 minutes has passed. Do the same for rest periods - include a clock out and a clock in time, and if you can, bar them from clocking back in before the ten minutes is up.
If you use an older analog time clock, consider upgrading it. New technology could help save you money (figure one short lunch or one missed lunch per employee per week = one extra hour of statutory labor code violation pay per employee, if you want to look at return on investment).
If you use old fashioned, fill 'em in time cards, take a moment to adjust the format. Make sure you add "out" and "in" times for meal breaks and rest periods, and consider adding language so that when the employee signs the time card, they are certifying that they took all statutory rest periods and meal breaks. Like everything we do as employers, it creates more work up front, but the savings on this could be considerable.
Every case is different, and this is intended as a service to clients and the community, not as legal advice or advertising. You should consult an attorney if you have a question about labor or employment law in California.