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New California Law Allows Health Care Workers to Waive Meal Periods

Published by on December 3, 2015

On October 5, 2015, California Governor Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill No. 327 into law, which took effect immediately and confirmed that employees in the health care industry (i.e. nurses, therapists, physician assistants, technicians) can waive one of their two meal periods when working a shift over twelve hours in a workday. This law clarified […]

On October 5, 2015, California Governor Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill No. 327 into law, which took effect immediately and confirmed that employees in the health care industry (i.e. nurses, therapists, physician assistants, technicians) can waive one of their two meal periods when working a shift over twelve hours in a workday.

This law clarified a recent decision by the California Court of Appeal in Gerard v. Orange Memorial Medical Center, 234 Cal.App.4th 285 (2015), which had invalidated the health care exception, originally adopted in 1993, allowing employees to waive the second meal break during shifts more than twelve hours.

The exception provided benefits for both the healthcare industry employers and their employees. First, it provided employers with flexibility regarding California’s stringent meal break requirements given the high number of nurses and other patient care employees in the industry working twelve-hour shifts. And second, it gave employees the opportunity to work flexible hours while at the same time earning more through overtime.

The Gerard case was brought by health care workers against their hospital employer claiming that the hospital improperly had them waive their second meal break on shifts longer than twelve hours.

California’s Industrial Welfare Commission (“IWC”) prescribes a general meal break standard applicable for most employers through the California Labor Code, but also maintains industry/occupational wage orders to regulate rest break periods, meal periods and days of rest for workers in the specific industry or occupation that each respective wage order covers.

Section 11(D) of Wage Order No. 5-2001 explicitly allows employees in the health care industry who work shifts of more than eight hours in a day to waive one of their two meal periods by written agreement signed by both the employee and the employer. The hospital’s policy allowed health care workers to voluntarily waive one of their two meal periods for shifts over twelve hours and thus was consistent with Section 11 (D).

The plaintiffs argued, however, that the IWC’s Wage Order was invalid because it conflicted with Labor Code section 512 which governs meal period requirements. Labor Code section 512 does not allow for the waiver of one of two meal periods when a shift is longer than eight hours. The California Court of Appeal agreed with the plaintiffs, finding that the IWC had authority to enact wage orders consistent with section 512, but that the IWC exceeded that authority when it adopted the health care exception.

Therefore, the California Court of Appeal found that the health care exception in section 11(D) of Wage Order No. 5-2001 was invalid, and that healthcare workers could not waive one of their two meal periods for shifts over twelve hours.

The new law recently signed by Governor Brown completely abrogates the California Court of Appeal’s decision and confirms the validity of voluntary meal period waivers pursuant to the health care exception in section 11(D) of Wage Orders No. 4 and 5.

Laconic Lookout:

This new law permits California health care industry employees to waive one of their two meal periods even if they are working shifts exceeding twelve hours.

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