California Supreme Court Issues Seminal Decision on Meal and Rest Breaks

After a long wait, the California Supreme Court finally issued its much-anticipated ruling in Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Ct., 53 Cal. 4th 1004 (2012), resolving several unanswered questions regarding employers’ obligations with respect to employee meal and rest breaks.

First, the Supreme Court concluded that with respect to meal breaks, employers fulfill their obligations under the California Labor Code when they relieve their employees of all duty and make a 30-minute uninterrupted meal period available to employees; employers are not required to police their employees and affirmatively ensure that they take their 30-minute breaks.  Id. at 1017, 1041-41.  According to the Court, “[i]f work does continue, the employer will not be liable for premium pay.  At most, it will be liable for straight pay, and then only when it ‘knew or reasonably should have known that the worker was working through the authorized meal period.'”  Id. at 1040, n.19.

However, if an employer discourages or impedes employees from taking their meal breaks, such as by making it impossible for employees to take their meal breaks, premium pay liability may still attach.  Id. at 1040.  In summary, “‘[t]he employer that refuses to relinquish control over employees during an owed meal period violates the duty to provide the meal period and owes compensation [and premium pay] for hours worked.  The employer that relinquishes control but nonetheless knows or has reason to know that the employee is performing work during the meal period, has not violated its meal period obligations [and owes no premium pay], but nonetheless owes regular compensation to its employees for time worked.’”  Id. at 1040, n.19.

The Court also clarified that the first meal period must begin “no later than the end of an employee’s fifth hour of work,” and a second meal period, if applicable, must begin “no later than the end of an employee’s 10th hour of work.”  Id. at 1041.

With respect to rest breaks, the Court concluded that “[e]mployees 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.”  Id. at 1029.  With respect to the timing of those breaks, the Court stated:  “Employers are thus subject to a duty to make a good faith effort to authorize and permit rest breaks in the middle of each [four-hour] work period, but may deviate from that preferred course where practical considerations render it infeasible.”  Id. at 1031.  For example, “in the context of an eight-hour shift, ‘[a]s a general matter,’ one rest break should fall on either side of the meal break,” but “[s]horter or longer shifts and other factors that render such scheduling impracticable may alter this general rule.”  Id. at 1029.

In light of this new important decision, employers would be well-advised to review their meal and rest break policies to ensure that they are in compliance with these new laws.

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Bernstein & Friedland, P.C. is a boutique employment law firm in Los Angeles specializing in wrongful termination, discrimination, harassment, retaliation, and unpaid wage and overtime matters.  Please visit our website at www.laemploymentcounsel.com to learn more about us.

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