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Got lunch break?

Gov. Schwarzenegger's administration seeks to change meal break rules to limit lawsuits. But plan is giving some indigestion.

A food fight is breaking out over lunch breaks in California.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's administration recently proposed an "emergency regulation" related to rules on meal periods. The proposal is designed to limit lawsuits and increase workers' flexibility when it comes to grabbing lunch. But critics say the plan is a gift to employers and could literally leave workers hungry on the job.

The proposed regulation, from California's Division of Labor Standards Enforcement, aims to set criteria to determine whether an employer has met the requirement of providing a meal period.

But at least one legislator feels that the proposal doesn't do enough to ensure workers' rights.

"This proposed change would violate the express terms and clear meaning of existing law, and would effectively eviscerate an employee's right to receive a meal period at all," Assemblyman Paul Koretz said in a statement Tuesday.

Koretz said the planned rules require employers only to inform workers of their right to a meal period, rather than actually provide the lunch break. "This is a dramatic departure from the guaranteed meal period that has been part of California law for nearly a century," according to a statement from Koretz's office.

Dean Fryer, spokesman for the state's labor standards division, disagrees. He said the proposed regulation intends to ensure that employees would actually be given a meal break. New language related to informing employees about their rights addresses a problem facing employers, Fryer said. Under current state law, if a worker refuses to take meal breaks, his or her employer is vulnerable to litigation, he said.

Workplace disputes over lunch breaks aren't the only ones taking place in California. Employees at game development companies, including Redwood City, Calif.-based Electronic Arts, have been speaking out about demanding work expectations. In addition, a lawsuit was filed earlier this year against EA, claiming that it improperly classified image production employees as exempt from California overtime laws.

Another aspect of the proposal is that a required, 30-minute meal period could begin by the sixth hour of the workday--one hour after the current required deadline. That deadline stems from a misguided interpretation of labor rules, according to the division. Thanks to penalties resulting from this interpretation, "employers are forcing their employees to take meal periods when they do not necessarily desire to do so," the division said in a report Friday.

The proposed regulation changes are the most recent examples of Schwarzenegger's attempt to make California friendlier to business. The state already seems to be leading the pack in generating technology jobs. California is the dominant producer of new IT jobs in the United States, and the state increased its share of newly created IT jobs in November to more than 28 percent, according to a report earlier this month.

Dec. 15 is the last day for public comment on the proposed labor regulation, Koretz said. California Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez co-signed a letter he sent to the state's Office of Administrative Law critical of the legislation.

If the head of the administrative law office, a Schwarzenegger appointee, agrees that there is an emergency, the proposed regulation could go into effect by the end of the month, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. The changes would last for 120 days, while a permanent rule-making process takes place.