Employment Law Alert: California Supreme Court Rejects Rounding of Meal Period Time Records

California’s complex meal period requirements are a perennial source of anxiety for employers. Companies face potential penalties and expensive litigation for failing to provide their nonexempt employees with compliant meal periods. A recent ruling by the California Supreme Court in Donohue v. AMN Services, LLC added a new cautionary consideration to meal period compliance: The Court held that the practice of rounding meal period time records violates state law.

As a reminder, California Labor Code § 512(a) requires that “[A]n employer shall not employ an employee for a work period of more than five hours per day without providing the employee with a meal period of not less than 30 minutes, except that if the total work period per day of the employee is no more than six hours, the meal period may be waived by mutual consent of both the employer and employee. An employer shall not employ an employee for a work period of more than 10 hours per day without providing the employee with a second meal period of not less than 30 minutes, except that if the total hours worked is no more than 12 hours, the second meal period may be waived by mutual consent of the employer and the employee only if the first meal period was not waived.” If an employee is not provided the opportunity to take a timely and uninterrupted meal period, the employee is due one hour of premium pay.

AMN, the employer in Donohue, used an electronic timekeeping system that rounded punches to the nearest 10-minute increment. The Court criticized the shortfall that would occur when, for example, an AMN employee clocking out for lunch at 12:04 p.m. and clocking in after lunch at 12:25 p.m. was assigned adjusted time punches of 12:00 p.m. and 12:30 p.m. respectively. Under AMN’s rounding standard, the employee would be credited for a full 30-minute meal break despite taking only 21 minutes. The Court found that this rounding policy resulted in many employees not taking their full 30-minute meal breaks. The revised times also allowed AMN to avoid paying these employees the appropriate premium pay.

The Court emphasized that the meal period provisions were key to protecting employee health and welfare and could not be reduced, even slightly. The opinion stated that “employers cannot engage in the practice of rounding time punches – that is, adjusting the hours that an employee has actually worked to the nearest preset time increment – in the meal period context” because California’s “meal period provisions are designed to prevent even minor infringements on meal period requirements, and rounding is incompatible with that objective.”

Later in the opinion, the Court held that that records showing noncompliant meal periods raise a rebuttable presumption of meal period violations. The Court noted that an employer can overcome this presumption by presenting evidence that either an employee was compensated for noncompliant meals or the employee was provided compliant, 30-minute, off-duty meal periods during which time the employee voluntarily chose to work. The Court made it clear that the burden is on the employer to show compliance with meal period requirements through accurate recordkeeping.

The practice of rounding work time records has grown more and more rare, and Donohue ruling against the use of rounding with respect to meal periods tends to suggest that all California employers should move away from rounding (i.e., and use systems that record the exact beginning and ending times of all work periods). Employers seeking further guidance may contact any of the firm’s attorneys listed below.