Washington Employers: You don’t have to “police” employee meal breaks
Wage and Hour
Washington employers can let out a collective sigh of relief due to a recent federal district court decision reaffirming that they are not required to “police” employee meal breaks to make sure employees are taking them.
Washington employers can let out a collective sigh of relief due to a recent federal district court decision reaffirming that they are not required to “police” employee meal breaks to make sure employees are taking them. Employers are only required to give employees a meaningful opportunity to take the meal period.
Washington’s meal period regulation (WAC 296-126-092) provides:
1. Employees must be allowed to take a meal period of at least 30 minutes between 2-5 hours after the beginning of the shift;
2. The meal period must be paid when the employee is required by the employer to remain on duty or at a prescribed work site;
3. Employees cannot be required to work more than 5 consecutive hours without a meal period; and
4. Employees working 3 or more hours longer than a normal work day must be allowed another 30-minute meal period prior to or during the overtime period.
The employee in this case argued that Washington law imposes a mandatory obligation on the employer not only to provide meal breaks, but to ensure employees are taking them. The court disagreed, stating that “employers need only make meal breaks available to employees who choose to take those breaks.” Employers are not subject to strict liability just because they don’t force an employee to take a meal break. “Rather, an employer’s obligation is to relieve its employees of all duty, relinquish control over their activities and permit them a reasonable opportunity to take an uninterrupted break.” The court did caution that the availability of meal breaks must be meaningful in practice, and employers cannot incentivize or coerce employees to skip breaks without violating the Washington regulation (Brady v. Autozone Stores, Inc., WD Wash, Sept. 2015).
Tips: Employers shouldn’t relax their meal period standards too much, though. In order to defend a wage and hour lawsuit, an employer will still need to prove that they made the meal period available and gave the employee an opportunity to take a full uninterrupted meal break. The easiest way to prove that the meal period was made available is to show that it was actually taken. For more information about Washington meal and break requirements, see the Vigilant Legal Guide, “Breaks and Meal Periods—Washington”. Similar Legal Guides are also available for Oregon, California, Idaho, and Montana.