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Can You Require Employees to Stay On-Site for Lunch?

By Christopher Coble, Esq. | Last updated on

Taco Bell had itself a little problem. Apparently, employees were taking their discounted meals and complimentary drinks home to family and friends. So, the Bell instituted a rule requiring discounted meals be consumed on the premises. Because the meals were also consumed during employees' lunch breaks, this effectively meant that if employees were on their lunch break, and utilizing their discount for a meal, they were required to remain on-site during their lunch breaks.

But the State of California has its own rule, requiring that employers relinquish control of their employees during breaks. So, did Taco Bell's on-premises discount policy make their employees' meal breaks not breaks at all? Not according to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Break Requirements

The Golden State is pretty strict when it comes to employee protections. Under state laws, if an employee works five hours in a day, they must have at least 30 minutes of time away from work to eat.

The California Supreme Court clarified those requirements in 2012, ruling that an employer satisfies the meal break obligation when it "relieves its employees of all duty, relinquishes control over their activities and permits them a reasonable opportunity to take an uninterrupted 30-minute break, and does not impede or discourage them from doing so." Employees who so wished could decline the break, but employers would need to compensate them for their time working if they did.

In this case, Bernardina Rodriguez filed a class action lawsuit against Taco Bell, claiming that, because the restaurant required discounted meals to be eaten on-site, she was under "sufficient employer control" that she should get paid for the time spent on the Bell's premises eating discounted meals. But the Ninth Circuit wasn't buying it.

Relinquishing Control

"On the basis of the undisputed facts in this case," the court reasoned, "we conclude that Taco Bell's meal policy ... relieves employees of all duty and relinquishes control over their activities":

Taco Bell does not require the employee to purchase a discounted meal. The purchase of the meal is entirely voluntary. Plaintiff has not alleged nor introduced any evidence to show that Taco Bell pressured its employees to purchase the discounted meals. Employees are free to leave the premises or spend their break time in any way that they choose that does not interfere with Taco Bell conducting its business. For that matter, employees are free to purchase meals at full price and eat them wherever the employees wish. The company does not otherwise interfere with the employees' use of the break time or require the employees to serve the interests of Taco Bell. Nor has Plaintiff alleged or introduced any evidence to show that her employer required or pressured her to conduct work activities while on premises during the meal period. Taco Bell's policy indeed appeared to prohibit this, as employees were required to take rest breaks and meal periods away from "[t]he food production area" and "[t]he cash register service area."

In rejecting Rodriguez's claims, the Ninth Circuit lays out a good list of parameters for small business to consider when creating their own meal break policies. If you need help crafting your own policy, an experienced employment attorney is only a call or click away.

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