Can Employers Round Time Punches For Meal Breaks in San Diego, CA?

California has some of the broadest employee protections in the country. Thanks to a new ruling by the California Supreme Court, employers can no longer round time punches for meal breaks.

Rounding Time Punches for Meal Breaks Prohibited in California

The case in question is Donohue v. AMN Services, LLC. The justices issued a unanimous opinion in the case on February 25, 2021. In that opinion, the justices found that an employer cannot round time punches for meal periods. 

Rounding time clock punches is a common practice by many employers in California. The time clock automatically rounds to the nearest five minutes or one-tenth of an hour. However, when you apply rounding to meal breaks, the policy could obscure meal break violations.

Meal Break Requirements Under California Law

Employers in California must generally provide employees with an unpaid 30-minute meal break after the fifth hour of work. After the end of the tenth hour of work, the employer must provide another 30-minute unpaid meal break.

During the meal break, the employer cannot require the employee to work and must relinquish control over the employee’s activities. The employee is free to leave the premises and return during the meal break.

The Labor Code states that if an employer does not provide a meal period for the employee, the employer must pay the employee for one more hour for the given workday.

The rules for meal breaks are very strict. There is absolutely no room for employers to infringe upon an employee’s meal break. The employee may voluntarily waive the first meal break only if the employee will not work more than six hours that day.

If an employer asks the employee to work during a meal break or remain on call, it violates the employee’s rights. The request amounts to the equivalent of illegally denying the worker a meal period. 

There are some exceptions to the meal period rule for on-duty meal periods. Also, unionized workers in certain industries and people working specific white-collar jobs might be exempt from the meal period rule.

Why Was Rounding Time Punches a Problem for Meal Periods?

AMN Services, LLC (AMN) provided compliant meal periods to their employees. However, the company used an electronic timekeeping system to track an employee’s compensable time. The system automatically rounded the employee’s time punch to the nearest 10-minute increment. 

For example, if an employee punched out for lunch at 12:32, the system would round the punch to 12:30. Likewise, if the employee returned from lunch at 12:56, the system rounded the punch to 1:00. 

It would appear that the employee received the full 30-minute meal break, even though the meal period was only 24 minutes. The rounding of time could also cause a delayed meal period to appear as if the meal break was taken exactly after the fifth hour of work. 

Rounding time often works in favor of the employee. Over an extended period, the employee may receive more compensation because of rounding. In the AMN case, Donohue does not dispute that the rounding policy resulted in overcompensation of the class by 85 work hours. 

However, the issue was whether rounding caused meal period violations to go unreported. Therefore, the employee would not receive the premium payment for a meal period violation. The court found that even slight meal period violations could result in substantial burdens to the employee.

A premium pay requirement makes it clear to employers that even minor violations of meal breaks are not acceptable. A system that rounds time punches results in the loss of those minutes as “negligible rounding errors.”

Rounding Rules for Work Hours and Grace Periods

Even though rounding is prohibited for meal breaks, rounding is allowed for hourly workers in California. The policy used must be fair, consistent, and neutrally applied. When rounding results in consistent underpayment to workers, then the rounding policy is unlawful.

As part of the rounding policies for hours worked, employers may adopt a grace period. However, the grace period policy cannot force an employee to work “off the clock.”

A grace period allows employees to clock in a few minutes early or clock out a few minutes late, but the employee is paid for the number of hours the employee was assigned to work. Grace periods allow for long lines at time clocks.

For an employer to use a grace period, the following conditions must be met:

  • The employee cannot be assigned work to be performed during the unpaid grace period
  • The employee cannot perform any work during the grace period
  • The employer does not exercise control over the employee during the grace period

If an employee works during the grace period, the employer must pay the employee for the time worked.

Rounding and Grace Periods Can Violate an Employee’s Rights

It is easy for rounding policies and grace periods to violate California wage and hour laws. These policies may also violate rules for rest breaks and meal periods. Unfortunately, an employee may not be aware that an employer is cheating them out of compensation.

San Diego employment law attorneys see many cases that demonstrate how employers use policies to violate employee rights. As with other disputes related to employee compensation and benefits, having trusted legal counsel to help you understand your rights is always in your best interest. 

To learn more, call our San Diego law firm at (619) 693-7727 or contact us online.