ARE MISSED LUNCH OR MEAL PERIOD “PENALTIES” CONSIDERED WAGES UNDER CALIFORNIA LAW?
Yes. Under California law, if an employee is denied a meal period, he or she is entitled to one hour of pay. This one hour of pay is sort of like a penalty against the employer. But it is not a penalty. Instead, it is considered “wages.” (Murphy v. Kenneth Cole.)
The distinction between “penalties” and “wages” is critical in California law for one simple reason: an employee can collect unpaid wages going back as many as four years from the date he or she files a civil lawsuit. If the employee seeks penalties, he or she can only go back ONE year.
The practical effect of meal periods being wages and not penalties is that a California employee may be able to recover one hour of pay for each missed meal period going back four years from the date of filing a claim in civil court.
Keep in mind that an employee who brings a wage claim before the Labor Commissioner for missed meal periods may only go back three years.