Ninth Circuit Rules that California Employees Can Trade Away Meal Period Rights

In a noteworthy decision last week, the Ninth Circuit ruled that fast food workers in California can voluntarily bargain away some of their meal period rights in exchange for discounted meals. The unanswered questions are how much employees can trade away, and in exchange for what.

The case (Rodriguez v. Taco Bell) challenged Taco Bell’s policy of offering discounted food to employees to be eaten during their meal breaks, as long as the employees agreed to remain in the store. Taco Bell’s reason for adopting the policy was apparently to prevent employees from leaving the premises and giving the food to friends or family. California law requires that during employees’ required meal breaks, employees must be relieved of all duty and be free to leave the premises.

The Court rejected the employee’s argument that by being required to remain in the store, the employee was under the control” of Taco Bell and the meal period was invalid. The Court noted that purchasing the discounted food was entirely voluntary,” and Taco Bell did not interfere in how the employee spent the meal break.

The obvious question is how far the reasoning in this case can be extended. The California Supreme Court held years ago that an employer is not liable if employees voluntarily choose not to take their meal break. Does this mean that employees can trade away their right to take meal periods or rest breaks in exchange for a company gift card, for example? What about a monthly bonus? Employees in California can waive their meal periods under certain circumstances. Can they also trade them away, and be required to work an eight-hour shift with no meal period, in exchange for a benefit?

In our view, a significant expansion of this case is unlikely. California courts are simply too protective of employee rights (or perhaps paternalistic, depending on your viewpoint) to permit employees themselves to trade away significant rights. The Court in this case suggested that if the employee had been under the control” of Taco Bell during the meal period, even voluntarily as part of receiving discounted meals, the practice would have been struck down. Indeed, California law provides that even if an employee prefers to work (and be paid) during his/her meal period, an employer can only do so if the nature of the job makes it necessary.

Still, this case does provide an opportunity that California employers may use to their advantage. Companies might consider ways to lessen the inconvenience that comes with certain legally-protected employee rights (such as the right to leave the premises during a meal period) in exchange for a benefit. Employers should just be aware that any limitation on employee rights will be viewed with suspicion by California courts.