Refreshing Clarification from the California Supreme Court: Employers NOT On the Hook If Employees Work During Breaks

Contributed by Carly Zuba

For countless years now, California employers have struggled with interpreting and complying with vague and ambiguous meal and rest period laws in California.  For instance, what is meant by “providing” a thirty-minute meal and rest period to employees?  Are employers required to ensure that employees actually take these mandatory breaks? When must these breaks be allowed during the workday?  These seemingly simple questions have cost California employers hundreds upon hundreds of headaches … and millions upon millions of dollars in lawsuits.

However, as of yesterday afternoon, we anticipate that many of these headaches will subside, as the California Supreme Court provided some long-awaited clarification on these matters in Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court of San Diego.  California employers have been holding their breaths in anticipation of this ruling for three and a half years – the case has been pending before the state’s high court since 2008.  And all the way from the state of Illinois, we are hearing California employers breathing sighs of relief.

All things considered, Brinker is a win for employers and will undoubtedly shape the growing number of class action lawsuits that employees are waging against employers accused of meal and rest break violations.  Below are the most significant rulings within the case:

  • Employers need not take on the role of “lunch police”: The court clarified that while employers are legally required to provide employees with meal and rest breaks by relieving employees of all work duties and allowing them to leave the work premises, employers are under no obligation to ensure that employees are actually taking those mandated breaks.  In short, employers cannot be sued if employees choose to perform work during their breaks.
  • Meal Period Timing: The first meal period must be provided within the first five hours of an employee’s shift.  If an employee is entitled to a second meal period, it must be provided within the first ten hours of an employee’s shift.  Beyond this, there are no additional timing requirements under the law.
  • No Required Order: Rest breaks and meal periods need not be given in any particular order.
  • Rest Period Clarification:  Employees are entitled to ten minutes of rest for shifts from three and a half hours to six hours in length, and to another ten minutes of rest for shifts from six to ten hours in length.
  • Suitability of Claims for Class Treatment: Meal and rest periods claims are suitable for class action where the employer has a uniform policy or practice which conflicts with meal and rest period requirements under the law.

Amid this mainly positive news, we close with a cautionary note for you California employers: if you know that employees are working during a mandated meal and rest break, you must immediately tell them to take their break, unless you want to pay them for that time.  This is because the court stated that if an employer “knew or reasonably should have known” that an employee was working during their break, the employer will be liable for payment of that employee’s wage for time worked.  So while you don’t have to police your employees’ breaks, you can’t simply turn a blind eye to an obvious violation.