In the last few years, employees have brought countless class actions  claiming that they were not compensated for working during meal and rest breaks. In a much-anticipated decision, the California Supreme Court has ruled that employers must provide employees with meal breaks, but are not required to ensure that no work is performed during those meal breaks.

Interpreting and clarifying California’s wage and hour laws, the justices held that an employee’s first meal break must generally fall no later than five hours into a work shift, but that an employer need not schedule meal breaks at five-hour intervals throughout the shift. California employees are also entitled to 10 minutes of rest for shifts ranging from 3.5 to 6 hours long, and another 10 minutes of rest for shifts ranging from 6 to 10 hours, the court held, but the rest periods need not be timed to fall specifically before or after a meal period.

In its recent decision in Brinker Restaurant Corp. et. al. v. Superior Court, the court held that an employer satisfies its obligation under California law to provide its employees with meal breaks “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…On the other hand, the employer is not obligated to police meal breaks and ensure no work thereafter is performed.”

The plaintiffs, a group of hourly restaurant employees filed a class action lawsuit against Brinker, their employer and owner of several restaurant chains, alleging that Brinker was obligated to ensure that employees did not perform any work during their meal periods. The court, however, found no basis for such a contention, either in the California Labor Code or in the wage orders promulgated by the California Industrial Welfare Commission (IWC).

Considering the statutory language and IWC wage orders, the court found only the obligation to relieve employees of their duties and provide an opportunity for an uninterrupted, work-free 30-minute meal break. Requiring employers to ensure that no work is performed, the court held, would be inconsistent with “the fundamental employer obligations associated with a meal break: to relieve the employee of all duty and relinquish any employer control over the employee and how he or she spends the time.”

In a footnote, the court concluded that if work does continue during the meal break, the employer will not be liable for premium pay. “At most, it will be liable for straight pay,” the court said, if the employer “‘knew or reasonably should have known that the worker was working through the authorized meal period.’”

The plaintiffs also asserted that Section 512 of the California Labor Code requires that meal breaks be scheduled every five hours. The court rejected this notion based on its reading of the statute. The court determined that “first meal periods must start after no more than five hours.” Similarly, a second meal period is required after no more than 10 hours of work in a day. The court noted that the statute does not provide any caveat based on when the earlier meal break occurred.

In ruling on the required length of rest periods, the court noted that IWC wage orders “are to be accorded the same dignity as statutes.” Accordingly, following the guidance of Wage Order No. 5, the court held that employees “are entitled to 10 minutes’ rest for shifts from three and one-half to six hours in length, 20 minutes for shifts of more than six hours up to 10 hours, 30 minutes for shifts of more than 10 hours up to 14 hours, and so on.”

Finally, the plaintiffs argued that employers have a legal duty to permit their employees a rest period before any meal period. Again interpreting Wage Order No. 5, the court rejected this argument, noting that the “only constraint on timing is that rest breaks must fall in the middle of work periods ‘insofar as practicable.’ Employers are thus subject to a duty to make a good faith effort to authorize and permit rest breaks in the middle of each work period, but may deviate from that preferred course where practical considerations render it infeasible.”

In light of Brinker, employers with non-exempt employees located in California should review their meal and rest break protocols to ensure they are consistent with the newly clarified law. For example, although employers are not required to ensure their employees take their meal breaks, policies should still be clear that employees are permitted to do so, and to take their rest breaks. Employers should also relieve employees of their duties during their breaks and should not in any way interfere with that right. Additionally, California employers should set up procedures so that employees who work through any portion of their authorized meal period receive straight time pay for such work.

Ballard Spahr regularly assists employers in reviewing policies to ensure wage and hour compliance. If you have questions on the Brinker ruling or its implications for your business, please contact the member of the Labor and Employment Group with whom you work.

Copyright © 2012 by Ballard Spahr LLP.
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