The high cost of skipping lunch

Especially on harvest days, farmwork seems never to end, and time can be in short supply. Sometimes, farm owners can be tempted to skip rest periods or rush their workers through lunch. However, sixteen states require some level of meal or rest periods for agricultural workers, and it pays for farmers to be aware of what can happen if these breaks are overlooked. Illinois and California both had recent updates to their meal and rest laws. Both states made decisions favorable to workers and created higher monetary consequences for businesses that fail to follow the mandates.

Illinois’ update is legislative and won’t become applicable until January 1, 2023. The new statute changed the requirements for providing a weekly rest day, but agricultural workers are exempt from that portion of the law. Meal breaks in Illinois, however, are required on farms. As it stands now, an unpaid twenty-minute meal break is necessary if an employee works at least 7.5 hours. A second meal break isn’t required until the worker hits 15 hours! The Illinois legislature stepped in to lower that threshold. Starting next year, if a worker hits 12 hours of work, a second unpaid twenty-minute meal break is mandated.

Illinois also increased the monetary penalties for non-compliance. A farmer failing to provide adequate meal breaks will be liable to up to $250 per offense if they employ 24 or fewer employees and up to $500 per offense if they employ 25 or more employees. These penalties accrue for each worker, each time a meal break is missed, and are paid to both the Department of Labor and the employee.  Previously fines were capped at $100 per offense.

California’s update comes via case law and expands the definition of “wages.” Since 2017, California agricultural workers have been entitled to the same meal and rest periods required in other industries. Any worker who labors for five or more hours a day is entitled to an unpaid, thirty-minute meal break; anyone reaching the ten-hour mark is entitled to a second unpaid meal break of equal length.

Rest periods are required for agricultural workers in California, too. For every four hours worked, a worker is entitled to ten minutes of rest. In contrast to meal breaks, farmers must pay their employees for these rest periods.

California business owners who don’t comply with meal and rest periods owe what is commonly known as “premium pay.” If an employer fails to provide an employee a meal or rest period, the employer must pay the employee one hour of pay at the employee’s regular compensation rate for each workday where meal or rest periods are skipped or shortened.

A May case from the California Supreme Court found in favor of a security guard who had been made to work through his lunch break and sued his company for monetary penalties usually reserved for non-payment of wages. The Court compared the “premium pay” to overtime pay—wages designed to compensate the employee for “hardship” and deter the employer from routinely imposing such obligations.

In the end, the company owed the security guard much more money than they initially thought, and the Court’s message is clear—rest and meal breaks are to be taken seriously. Employees have a clear path to demand what they are owed if employers do not adhere to the break rules.

On a practical note, the Court’s decision makes clear that Californian employers need to list premium pay for missed meals and rest periods as a separate line item on an employee’s wage statement and pay the premiums promptly.

For more details on meal and rest breaks and a wide variety of employment law topics, sign up for our on-demand Advanced Employment Law course.