Landmark Decision: CA Supreme Court Decides Employers Are Not Meal Police
Employees of Brinker Restaurant Corporation (the parent company of Chili’s, Maggiano’s, and Macaroni Grill, among others) brought a class action against Brinker alleging years of meal and rest period violations.
The employees claimed Brinker required them to take early lunches and then work an additional five to nine hours without a second meal break – and that this requirement violated wage and hour laws.
The plaintiffs also alleged employees were required to work off the clock during meal periods; that managers altered employee time cards; and that Brinker had an obligation to ensure employees take their meal periods.
The trial court ruled mostly for the employees, but Brinker appealed, and the Appellate Court ruled in favor of the employer and determined the claim could not proceed as a class action. The California Supreme Court granted review to resolve the questions regarding the nature of meal and rest breaks, how they should be provided, as well as whether or not the claims presented should be treated in a class action setting. The Court heard arguments in November, and delivered its decision today.
According to the decision written by Associate Justice Kathryn M. Werdegar, the most contentious issue proved to be whether employers must police meal periods to ensure employees take those breaks without doing any work in a 30 minute time frame.
The Supreme Court’s Decision – Providing vs. Policing
The Supreme Court concluded an employer’s obligation ends with providing the meal period. Once a meal break begins, an employee is “at liberty to use the meal period for whatever purpose he or she desires, but the employer need not ensure that no work is done.”
The Court also decided that though first meal break must be provided no later than five hours into a shift, the employer need not schedule another meal break within five hours after the first meal period ended. Rather, employers must only provide a second meal break after 10 hours of work.
Employee Break Times Put to Rest Too
The Supreme Court cited Industrial Welfare Commission wage order rules, deciding that employees are entitled to a 10 minute break in the middle of each four hour work period (or “major fraction thereof”), meaning for many employees a rest break should be permitted between 3.5 and 6.0 hours of work into a shift. However, rest breaks are not necessarily required for a specific time before or after the meal period.
All in all, the decision today is good news for employers, as it limits the scope of responsibility regarding meal periods:
“We conclude that under Wage Order No. 5 and Labor Code section 512, subdivision (a), an employer must relieve the employee of all duty for the designated period, but need not ensure that the employee does no work.”
Sue M. Bendavid is the Chair of our Employment Practice Group. Employers with questions regarding today’s landmark decision can reach her at 818.990.2120.