An employer's obligation to provide meal breaks has become a contentious issue and a popular area for class action lawsuits in the past few years. In California, courts have been split over whether state law requires employers to merely make meal periods available to employees or whether employers are required to make sure that employees actually take the break. As a result of this confusion, employers have been subjected to costly and protracted litigation. In its highly anticipated decision that has attracted widespread attention, Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court (Hohnbaum), No. S166350 (Apr. 12, 2012), the California Supreme Court answered the question, holding that employers are required to relieve their employees of their duties during meal periods but are not required to make sure that no work is performed during that time.
The Brinker Case
California law requires employers to provide meal periods to non-exempt employees within certain hours of the work day and prohibits employers from requiring employees to work during a meal period. The statute penalizes employers that violate these requirements by requiring them to pay premium wages.
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, which now places employers in a better position to minimize liability. 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 wage and hour litigation continues to be a hot area. 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.© 2013 Neal, Gerber & Eisenberg LLP.