On-duty meals: When are they permitted?

California has stringent laws which require breaks and meal periods for employees. For certain numbers of hours worked, employers must provide employees with time to take breaks and eat meals. For employees working longer shifts, this can result in multiple breaks and multiple meal periods. But can the employee be required to work during their meal periods?

The meal period requirement

Whenever an employee works at least five hours, California law requires that they be given a 30-minute meal period. During this period, the employee has to be relieved of all of their duties and be permitted to leave the employer’s premises. The 30-minute period must be continuous; if it is interrupted, the employer is required to pay the employee for one hour of work at their regular pay rate.

The on-duty meal period exception

Despite the meal period requirement, there is a possible exception. An employee may take their 30-minute meal period but remain on duty during that time. However, there are requirements which must be met for this practice to occur and they are not as common as many people believe.

First, an on-duty meal period is only permitted when the nature of the work means that the employee cannot be relieved of their duties. This is an objective test – it is not sufficient that the employer simply thinks they can’t do without the employee or that things will be difficult.

Furthermore, an on-duty meal period is only allowed when both the employer and the employee agree to it in writing. It is not a policy the employer can implement on their own, without the consent of the employee. And even if the employee agrees to the on-duty meal period, they can revoke their assent at any time, again in writing. If the written agreement between the employer and employee does not specifically state that the employee may revoke it, the agreement is void entirely.