Oregon Employers Must Ensure Employees Take Full 30-Minute Meal Breaks, Appeals Court Rules

Author: Michael Cardman, XpertHR Legal Editor

November 26, 2019

Having an employee handbook that prohibits employees from working during meal periods is not enough for Oregon employers to avoid liability. The state's second-highest court has held that an employer must actively monitor its employees' work and meal periods to ensure they take full 30-minute meal breaks.

"[A] 30-minute meal is mandatory and, if not taken, the employer must pay the employee's wages for the full 30-minutes," the Oregon Court of Appeals held in Maza v. Waterford Operations.

Oregon law requires employers to provide an unpaid 30-minute meal break for each work period between six and eight hours, unless employees waive their right to a meal period as allowed under certain conditions. If an employer does not completely relieve employees of work duties for the entire 30 minutes, it must pay them a penalty wage.

The Maza case involved a skilled nursing care facility that had authorized its hourly employees to take unpaid 30-minute meal breaks. Its employee handbook stipulated that meal breaks are mandatory and may not be skipped, even with employees' consent. The handbook also outlined a process for employees to report meal break issues, and required employees to notify a manager or HR if a meal break was not provided or if they performed off-the-clock work.

Nevertheless, hourly employees took some unpaid meal breaks that were shorter than 30 minutes.

Because it had authorized 30-minute meal breaks, the employer argued it should not face liability for wages or penalties for shortened meal breaks unless employees were forced to return to work early. The employees countered that the requirement to pay wages comes into play whenever a meal break is shortened, regardless of the cause.

The appellate court sided with the employees, concluding that the rule's text and context support their interpretation.

In light of the Maza ruling, Oregon employers should consider taking steps to help minimize the risk of liability, such as:

  • Requiring employees to clock out for unpaid meal breaks;
  • Limiting meals to designated break rooms where no work can be performed; and
  • Monitoring employees' use of laptops or cell phones during break periods.