Loring Weisenberger
Jan 13, 2021

Producer's Guide: Meal Penalties

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The fastest way to your cast and crew's hearts are through their stomachs. And if you haven't learned that already, you will if you ever incur meal penalties.

Luckily, with a little planning and a lot of communication, that financially challenging experience can be avoided easily and entirely. In this post, we’ll tell you exactly how to handle one of the hangriest hang-ups in labor law history: the meal penalty. 

Now, without further hors d’oeuvres, let’s dig in.

What is a Meal Penalty?

Aside from being a production accountant’s worst nightmare, meal penalties are a form of monetary compensation incurred when a production eats into a crew member’s state-, federal-, and/or union-guaranteed workday meal period. 

Like all elements of labor law, meal penalties exist in order to protect the rights of workers. The enforcement of meal penalties, in particular, is intended to discourage a business of any kind from forcing its employees to work for unreasonable lengths of time without eating. 

To that end, California labor law specifically states that, “…an employer may not employ an employee for a work period of more than five hours per day without providing the employee with a meal period of not less than thirty minutes, except that if the total work period per day of the employee is no more than six hours”. 

In other words, if an employee is scheduled to work for a single period lasting longer than six hours, they’re guaranteed at least one meal break of at least thirty minutes during that period. That goes for any employee working in any industry anywhere within the borders of the state of California.

The film industry follows the same basic guidelines, but- as it seemingly always manages to do- has reshaped the details to better meet the oddball physical necessities of moviemaking. Let’s take a moment to see how it works by reviewing some scheduling basics.

If you’ve ever been on set, you’re already aware that each workday is scheduled to last approximately twelve hours “plus lunch”. That means that the workday begins for each talent or crew member at their designated call time, from which point forward they will be on the clock for six hours or until “lunch” is otherwise called. During lunch, which must last at least half an hour, the talent or crew member is officially off-duty and are not legally allowed to work. Once lunch is over, everyone will be back on the clock until wrap, which, under normal circumstances, cannot occur more than six hours after everyone has returned from lunch. 

The key to understanding meal penalties in the film industry lies in these six-hour labor periods.

While general labor guidelines suggest that an employee must break for a meal after only five hours, that’s simply not the case when it comes to working in film production. As illustrated above, the standard system of moviemaking in the United States instead schedules its meal periods in conjunction with six-hour labor periods. Meaning, in simple terms, that you have to feed your people every six hours…

…Or pay the price.

That’s right.

In general, if you work your crew longer than six hours at a time, you are legally obligated to pay them more money in the form of (you guessed it) a meal penalty. 

For most industries, the employee is owed an additional hour of pay for each day on which a meal penalty is incurred. However, in film production, the cost of a meal penalty is generally determined by the crew member’s individual union.

SAG-AFTRA, for instance, maintains its own guide to meal penalty rates, as do the various, national IATSE Locals.  In general, the amounts increase and accrue in thirty-minute increments until the meal is finally called, which, as you can imagine, can be quite a blow to a production’s bottom line. 

Fortunately, meal penalties are a preventable danger. 

How to Avoid Incurring Meal Penalties 

Meal penalties are essentially a form of punishment for having broken a rule. To that end, the easiest way to avoid punishment is to simply not break the rule. 

In principle, that’s easy. As long as you never work your crew for longer than six hours in one stretch, you’ll never owe anyone a meal penalty. In the heat of production, however, circumstances tend to be slightly more complicated. Let’s outline a few simple concepts to help keep you on track. 

First, understand that preventing meal penalties is a team sport.

While it may be the producer who cares the most about avoiding preventable costs, the actual sweat of making sure it gets done belongs to those with boots on the ground. The director and 1st assistant director have the decision-making power to break a crew for lunch on-time. Department heads have the organizational power to make sure that decision is easy to make. Even production assistants have the critical power to help make sure the process happens as smoothly and efficiently as possible. If you work to ensure your team is responsible and professional, the prevalence of errors like meal penalties can and will be minimized. 

Second, understand that communication and record-keeping are vital parts of the process. 

For instance, the budgetary impact of a meal penalty is ultimately felt during production payroll. Therefore, it’s important to make sure that documents like crew timecards and SAG Exhibit G’s are in alignment with the production reports before any payroll is officially processed, a passive task that relies on open communication between the production’s UPM, script supervisor, and 2nd assistant director, at minimum. Practicing basic due diligence may sound over-simplistic, but it could save your production buckets of bucks in the long run.  

Third, understand that there are other tools at your disposal.

Seasoned veterans take it for granted, but making movies is a wild job. Circumstances are constantly shifting, and no two gigs are exactly alike, ever. In recognition of this innate idiosyncrasy, over time, the film industry has developed a vast array of procedural tools designed to make surprises more manageable, at least a few of which are specifically intended to help us avoid the incursion of meal penalties. Let’s take a look:

Calling Grace

“Calling grace” is the practice by which a crew agrees to let production continue for exactly twelve additional minutes into the first meal period, generally in order to complete a single take of a given set-up. 

Grace is an important tool in a director and 1st assistant director’s kit. For a director, getting that one extra take can mean the difference between a scene that works and a scene that will eventually require a day of reshoots. For a 1st AD, finishing a set-up before breaking for lunch can mean the difference between making a day and pushing an hour into overtime. 

However, if you’re going to call grace, there are two fundamental rules that must always be followed.

First, the grace period cannot last longer than twelve minutes. If it does, you’ll start accruing meal penalties, which defeats the point of calling grace in the first place. A production might get away with a small buffer on a non-union shoot, but if you casually round twelve up to an admittedly more aesthetic fifteen on a union production, rest assured, you will pay for it.  

Second, you have to ask the crew’s permission to call grace. Make no mistake, the cast and crew are doing the production a favor by agreeing to work those additional twelve minutes, and under no circumstances can you simply assume that they’ll be cool with it. Usually, your 1st and 2nd assistant directors can adequately organize this through various department heads. Wrangling everyone does take time, so it’s important to keep an eye on the clock. 

But here’s a quick pro-tip: Unless you want to experience the wrong end of mutiny firsthand, never- and I mean never ever- plan to call grace as part of your shooting schedule ahead of time. Beyond the fact that it’s a logistically ill-advised maneuver, it’s also just plain rude. Grace should always be a back-up plan. 

Second Meals

Second meals are exactly what they sound like. 

Once you’ve returned from lunch, a production is allowed to work its crew for another six-hour period. After that, technically, the crew is owed another thirty-minute meal period, or the production will begin accruing meal penalties.

Arranging for a second meal won’t save you from the financial consequences of a poorly timed mid-day meal, but it can make all the difference when dealing with a slightly delayed wrap. However, before you order a dozen meat lovers pizzas, there are a few second meal wrinkles that you should make yourself aware of. 

For one, you can call grace for second meal as well.

The second meal grace period remains the same as the first in that you are required to ask your crew for permission before calling grace. It differs in that it grants up to thirty minutes, as opposed to twelve, to dismiss your crew from set without a meal before incurring a meal penalty. But fair warning, if you pass the thirty minute mark without either providing a meal or dismissing crew from set, your production will incur not one but two meal penalties for each crew member. 

Alternatively, you have the option of making your second meal a walking meal. 

A walking meal is a meal period through which your crew will eat while continuing to work. It’s a trade-off in which you won’t incur any meal penalties because you’re feeding everyone, but everyone still gets paid more by remaining on the clock through the meal period. 

The main advantage to a walking meal is that it can keep wrap moving quickly and, in the process, avoid forcing your crew into additional hours of costly overtime. Keep in mind, however, that each member of your crew has the legal right to a full, duty-free meal break once the work period after lunch surpasses six hours in duration, meaning that, as with grace, you’ll have to ask their permission before deciding on a walking meal. 

French Hours

Our final tool for avoiding meal penalties is something of a rarity.

Also known as the “continuous day”, working within “French hours” refers to the practice in which an entire crew agrees to forego a lunch period altogether, eating only piecemeal when they have the chance and compressing the twelve-plus-hour shoot day into a much shorter timeframe of about eight to ten hours, depending on the circumstances. 

The idea behind French hours is that they eliminate the mid-day slumps that tend to occur naturally on both sides of lunch, allowing a greater amount of work to be accomplished in a much shorter overall day. French hours also carry the fringe benefit of letting the crew get home within normal human hours, allowing them the rare opportunity to have a life outside of their labor.

In theory, French hours sound great. The trouble is putting them into practice. 

Within the U.S., there are no uniform regulations or provisions for productions who want to work French hours. That means that not only do you have to get the entire crew to agree to the alternative process, but you’ll also have to negotiate the terms underlying it singlehandedly. For a small production, that is no easy feat. 

Nevertheless, films like Phone Booth, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, and more have been completed using French hours, proving that the obstacles currently in place can be overcome. It may be a challenge, but if your production is facing the right set of restrictions- like limited shooting time or working with children- French hours just might be the way to go.  

Before we wrap this burrito up, let’s talk about one more burning- dare I say, sizzling?- question:

What about breakfast?

On set, breakfast is, tragically, not the most important meal of the day. Instead, it only counts as what we call an “NDB”.

“NDB” stands for “Non-Deductible Break”, and it refers to a fifteen-minute, work-free meal period during which a talent or crew member is still being paid.  An NDB will generally be scheduled in order to realign a cast or crew member’s meal penalty period so that it coincides with that of the rest of the production on a given day. This is particularly useful to help prevent pre-calls from incurring unnecessary costs. 

For example, it’s not uncommon for a make-up artist to receive a call time thirty minutes or more ahead of general call in order to prep their stations and get to work on the first cast member as soon as possible. If their schedule then remains unaltered after that pre-call, in order to avoid a meal penalty, they would technically have to break for lunch thirty minutes or more before the rest of the crew. In such a case, an NDB would be scheduled to reset the make-up artist’s clock, enabling them to break for lunch at the same time as the rest of the crew without incurring meal penalties.

Breakfast may also count as a simple courtesy meal, usually served either before general call time or as a walking meal to be grabbed at each crew member’s discretion. While the presence or absence of a courtesy meal may affect a crew’s morale, it has absolutely no effect on their timecards.

What if I incur a meal penalty?

Sometimes, despite a producer's most diligent effort, meal breaks won't be hit on time.

Maybe a mechanical hiccup delayed set up. Maybe you got caught in horrendous traffic during a company move.

At any rate, when you do owe meal penalties, you'll want to turn to your production payroll company. After all, they'll be the ones who will be calculating meal penalties from your cast and crew's timecards.

With Wrapbook, you can calculate meal penalties during production thanks to its digital time card solution. Using their Wrapbook accounts, cast and crew can clock in and out through their phones, providing producers with a real-time view of wages owed. And based on your workers' union affiliations and overtime laws of the state you're producing in, Wrapbook will automatically calculate the proper meal penalties owed.

Check out a recorded demo of Wrapbook here.

Wrapping Up

When it comes to budgeting, it’s no secret that every penny counts. In this case, practicing basic respect and due diligence will go a long way towards saving as many pennies as possible by avoiding meal penalties and easing your payroll process.

And if you’re interested in making payroll even easier, be sure to check out Wrapbook. Just drop us a line to see exactly how we can eliminate the payroll stress of your next project with our online system’s unique suite of features and services. 

Disclaimer

At Wrapbook, we're all about providing the very best free resources to producers and their crews. However, this post is not a substitute for professional legal advice. Answers do not create a company-client relationship, nor is it a solicitation to offer legal advice. Seek the advice of a licensed attorney in the appropriate jurisdiction before taking any action that may affect your decisions or rights.

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About the Author

Loring Weisenberger

Loring is a writer, director and graduate of Chapman University’s MFA program in film production. Loring earned his production chops as an independent producer and assistant director, working across multiple formats for companies as diverse as Issa Rae’s Color Creative TV, Blackpills, Havas Worldwide, BuzzFeed and many more.

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