In California, employees must receive one lunch break of at least 30 minutes if they work a minimum of five hours at a time. Most businesses do not care if employees stay on-site or go out to eat as long as they come back within the requested amount of time. However, what should employees do if a boss requires them to stay on the premises no matter what during a meal break?
This issue was the subject of a 2018 lawsuit titled Rodriguez v. Taco Bell Corp. In this case, employees alleged that Taco Bell did not allow them to leave the premises for meals. Instead, the company offered discounted food on the condition they stayed at the restaurant. Ultimately, the courts sided with Taco Bell. The reason was that the company did not forbid employees from leaving. The restaurant merely stated that if employees bought the discounted food, they had to stay in the restaurant to eat it. They could have gone out to eat elsewhere if they wanted. The purpose of this rule was to prevent the theft of discounted food, which employees theoretically could have given to other people. However, this does not mean employers can enforce rules on meal breaks in general.
Employers have no right to decide where you spend your meal break
Some employees like to go out to eat while others drive back home to eat lunch. Employees have the right to go wherever they please during meal breaks, and employers cannot force workers to stay. In the case with Taco Bell, the restaurant did not force employees to stay or go. They merely placed a requirement for employees who wanted to buy lunch there. No mandatory rules were in place, which is what California law requires. You have rights for your meal breaks, and you should proceed appropriately if you believe your employer has violated your rights.