On Thursday, April 12, 2012, the California Supreme Court issued its long-awaited ruling in the case of Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court, 165 Cal.App.4th 25 (2008). The issue in the case was whether or not California employers are required to “ensure” that their employees take their meal breaks, or is it sufficient to “provide” employees with a meal period.
In a rare victory for California employers, the Court ruled in favor of common sense by concluding that an employer satisfies its obligation with regard to employee meal periods “if it relieves its employees of all duty, relinquishes control over their activities and permits them a reasonable opportunity to take an uninterrupted 30-minute break, and does not impede or discourage them from doing so.” [emphasis added]
In it’s unanimous opinion, the Court also concluded that an employer must provide a first meal period after no more than five hours of work, and a second meal period after no more than 10 hours of work. The Court also found that employees should receive one 10-minute rest break for each four hours they work.
The legal significance of this opinion is that it will likely make it more difficult for class actions alleging missed meal periods to get certified because so many individualized issues will govern how and when employees take breaks. Short of an employer actively coercing employees not to take meal breaks, it will likely be more difficult for employees to bring class action lawsuits.
What does this mean for your workplace? The Court made it clear that as an employer, you cannot do anything that would deter your employees from taking their meal breaks, nor can you create an incentive for employees to work during their meal periods, but you do not have to stand over your employees and make sure they are not working during their meal periods. As long as you have a policy in place providing employees with available meal breaks, the Court left it up to the employee whether or not they take it.
If you discover that employees are routinely not taking their meal breaks, you should initiate a dialogue with those employees to find out why meal breaks are not being taken; however, the ruling removes the burden of the meal period penalty payment when an employee voluntarily misses a meal period. You must still make sure that employees are clocking out and back in for all meal breaks.
Please do not hesitate to contact Laura S. Withrow, if you have any additional questions about how this ruling affects your workplace, or if you have concerns about whether or not you are in compliance with California’s labor laws as they relate to employee meal and rest periods.
Laura S. Withrow is an Employment Law Partner at the law firm of Nordman Cormany Hair & Compton LLP