On April 12, 2012, the California Supreme Court finally issued a long awaited decision in the seminal case of Brinker Restaurant v. Sup. Ct. (Hohnbaum), (Cal. Sup. Ct., April 12, 2012) (Case No. S166350) 2012 Cal. LEXIS 3149 and ruled that while California workers have a legal right to take their rest and meal breaks on the job, employers are “not obligated to police meal breaks and ensure no work thereafter is performed.” Brinker 2012 Cal. LEXIS 3149 *59-64.
Brinker was decided at the appellate level on July 22, 2008, and has been pending before the Supreme Court for nearly four years. Among other issues, the Court finally answered the question of whether employers, in accordance with Labor Code Section 512, need to “ensure” that employees who work at least five hours MUST take their full 30 minute meal breaks, or whether employers may merely make the meal breaks available to those employees.
The Supreme Court ultimately ruled that an employer satisfies its obligation under California law 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.” Brinker 2012 Cal. LEXIS 3149 *64.
Contrary to the position taken by many plaintiffs’ attorneys in years past, the Supreme Court similarly clarified that the Labor Code and applicable IWC Wage Orders do not dictate in what sequential order meal and rest periods must be taken, nor do they prohibit an employer from scheduling meal periods early within the shift. Thus, while the first meal break must be made available within the first five hours, the Supreme Court held “we cannot agree that the current version of Wage Order No. 5 limits to five hours the amount of work after a meal.” That means that an employee may take their meal break and then work another six hours after, and the employer would still be in compliance.
This highly anticipated decision provides much needed clarity and relief on an issue that has plagued the California courts with countless frivolous lawsuits and caused operational nightmares for restaurants and other employers throughout the state.
In Brinker, the plaintiff-employee claimed that an employer has a duty to ensure that employees do not do work during the meal period. In contrast, the employer argued that it was only required to make meal periods available to employees. The California Supreme Court agreed with the employer, finding no textual support in the statute for such a duty and reasoning that requiring such a duty is inconsistent with the employer’s obligation to relinquish control over the employee during the meal period. The court clarified that an employer is required to provide an uninterrupted 30-minute meal period to employees, and it satisfies this obligation if it relieves employees of all their duties, relinquishes control over their activities, and does not discourage or prevent them from taking the meal period. The court did not, however, provide guidance as to when an employer has satisfied its meal period obligation, explaining that what will suffice may vary based on the industry. In a clear win for employers, the court stated that employers are not required to police meal breaks to ensure that no work is performed.
The timing of meal periods also has been the focus of litigation and the court provided valuable guidance to employers on this issue as well. Absent waiver, employers are required to provide a first meal period no later than the end of an employee’s fifth hour of work. In addition, employers must provide a second meal period no later than the end of an employee’s tenth hour of work.
The court also addressed an employer’s obligations to provide rest periods to employees. Specifically, an employee is entitled to 10 minutes of rest for shifts ranging from three and one-half hours to six hours, 20 minutes for shifts ranging from more than six hours to 10 hours, and 30 minutes for shifts ranging from more than 10 hours up to 14 hours. Contrary to the plaintiff’s claim, the court held that employees are not required to take a rest period before a meal period. The only timing constraint is that, insofar as practicable, rest breaks must fall in the middle of the work period. An employer must make a good faith effort to permit rest breaks in the middle of the work period, but the court acknowledged that it could deviate from that schedule where practical considerations rendered it infeasible.
Impact of Brinker on Employers
Brinker provided much-needed clarification to California employers regarding their obligations to provide meal and rest periods. In the past, employers would be liable for premium pay when employees did not take a meal period, or took a shorter meal period. Brinker provides that an employer will not be liable for premium pay in this situation (however, an employer will be required to pay for such time if it knew or reasonably should have known that the employee was working during the meal period).
For all employers, including those outside of California, Brinker serves as a reminder that an employer’s best defense is to have proper employment policies and practices in place. Accordingly, employers should review their meal and rest break policies and make sure the language is compliant with state law. Additionally, employers must make sure they are not discouraging or preventing employees from taking required meal, or rest breaks and must train both employees and supervisors on such policies and practices. Taking such steps can help reduce an employer’s liability.
The Mellor Law Firm provides leading business lawyers in Riverside. Call (951) 221-4744 for more information.
Adapted in part from Jason C. Kim Lexology, California Supreme Court rules on employer’s meal break requirements, April 23, 2012.