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Taking Lunch at your Desk in California

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  • Taking Lunch at your Desk in California

    I'm the accountant for a California company that has recently undergone a few payroll changes. We moved all salaried staff to hourly because one salaried employee consistently missed at least one day a week and never made up the time, forcing other staff to take over the missed duties. The company owner got tired of paying salary for work not done, so it was decided to move all salaried staff to hourly, except for the owner, who kept herself as salaried exempt. Out of our 9 office staff, only 4 were salaried, and now only 1 is salaried as noted above.

    After this occurred, we have all been told that it is "against the law" for us to eat lunch in our offices, or even enter our offices during our lunch break. FYI, we have small break room where meals can be eaten, however the break room is an open room right in the middle of the office and is very high-traffic and loud and not conducive to relaxation. I occasionally need to make personal phone calls (doctor's office, etc) from my office on my lunch break. When I asked if we were permitted to continue to do so, I was told that we had to get approval from HR or the owner EVERY TIME we needed to enter our office during lunch break. This is simply not possible as we have staggered breaks and HR and the owner are generally not in the office when the need arises.

    We've also been told it's "against the law" for us to wear open-toed shoes (even though we all work in an office environment, which according to OSHA does NOT require protective footwear). These things and a few other issues have led me to believe that the HR worker (who incidentally was the lax worker who caused the switch to hourly) sees her move to hourly as punitive and is generously sharing the punishment with her subordinates. It's possible that the lunch break issue is not a punitive issue, but simply a reflection of increased scrutiny of lunch breaks since the elimination of exempt employees.

    As the accountant, I have disgruntled staff members coming to me, asking if these changes are actual law or if the HR worker is hiding behind imaginary legislation. I've been an accountant for 12 years and am intimately acquainted with labor law, and I have never seen any law mandating the location of lunch breaks. I've done some investigation and cannot find any Federal or California law that even implies that this is the case. It is my professional opinion that if these are not laws, then they should simply be stated as company policies. There is no need to hide behind false laws, and I believe this is only being done to avoid looking like the "bad guy"

    The morale in the office has taken a nose dive since the inception of these new policies. People feel that they are being punished. The general feeling is that our lunch breaks are no longer rejuvenating because in order to get any privacy and/or peace and quiet, we have to eat in our cars. Prior to this change, we could sit comfortably in our offices with the door closed, or even turn off the lights and take a nap if we wanted to. I've had one person, a very hard worker who really holds our company together, say that these changes have really made the office toxic and she is considering quitting if things don't ease up. I must note that this particular employee is a very dedicated worker, and has always been hourly, so she was not affected by the change to salaried employees. She is reacting purely to being ousted from her office during lunch and forbidden to wear open-toed shoes. Her feelings are reflective of the general office environment at this time.

    My question: Is there a California law forbidding hourly workers to eat lunch at their desks / in their offices? If there is not, how would you suggest that I broach this subject to management? It is very clear to me that we may end up losing some very talented workers who are integral to our business if things don't ease up.

    Thanks for taking the time to read my post!

  • #2
    No, it's not against the law for anyone to eat lunch at their desk however California does have a mandatory lunch break period. Could be this is the owner's way of ensuring it's not violated and no work is being done during the meal break. Doesn't really matter though. If the owner wants to prohibit people from eating in their offices or at their desks, he can.

    It's not against the law to wear open-toed shoes in the office either but the same applies as above. If the owner wants to make a work rule that open toed shoes, sandals, etc. are not permissible, he can.

    I don't know if your HR person is incompetent, disgruntled, or both. All that you can do is to speak privately to the owner, explain that valuable employees are upset about these new work rules, which are not required by any laws, and that you're concerned about the impact on the business due to low morale and possible turnover. If you keep the discussion focused on the potential impact on the business, the owner is more likely to be attentive.


    • #3
      Many, many employers will say "it's the law" in order to enforce internal policies. It's not the smartest way to motivate employees to do things, but there's no law requiring employers to be smart.

      There is also no law that say employees cannot each lunch at their desks, however, there are laws that say that if an employee is not completely relieved of their duties during their lunch period then that time must be paid. What's a quick and easy way to ensure that employees are completely relieved of their duties and don't have to be paid for their lunch time? It's to make them eat in the break room. this does appear to be a direct outcome of making everyone hourly. California is very strict on enforcing its lunch rules, and the owner can face stiff fines for not ensuring that employees get their lunch time.

      I worked for two Big Four accounting firms that had a rule against open toed shoes. I don't agree with it, but it's not illegal.
      I am not able to respond to private messages. Thanks!


      • #4
        Thank you, you've confirmed what I already believed: these are policies not laws. I understand the reasoning behind both measures, and it boils down to avoiding liability, which certainly makes sense. There's nothing wrong with having these policies, but people are angry that they are being lied to about legal statutes.

        HR is both incompetent and disgruntled. The owner really wanted to terminate, but instead settled on the switch to hourly as a measure to keep the desk filled while cutting what was seen as paid time off, AKA salaried employee consistently working far less than 40 hours a week. The other option was docking pay, but as you probably know that is a complex matter when it comes to exempt employees.

        I will take your advice and discuss this privately with the owner. It will be very easy to focus on the low morale and possible loss of valuable staff.

        Thank you!


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