The California Supreme Court, on April 12, 2012, issued a long-awaited ruling in the case of Brinker Restaurant v. Superior Court (No. S166350), concluding that employers only have to provide meal periods to workers, not make sure employees actually take them.
“An employer must relieve the employee of all duty for the designated period, but need not ensure that the employee does no work,” Associate Justice Kathryn Werdegar wrote for the unanimous court in a 54-page opinion.
Workers first sued Brinker, the parent company of Chili’s restaurant chain and Romano’s Macaroni Grills, in 2004 on behalf of a proposed class of approximately 60,000 non-unionized, hourly employees. They claimed that managers pressured them to skip their breaks by failing to adequately staff the restaurants or by threatening to cut or change their hours.
Brinker’s attorneys argued that employees should have flexibility in choosing whether to take their scheduled breaks.
A California appellate court sided with Brinker in 2008, finding that the restaurant company only had to “make available” the meal and rest breaks, but not “ensure” they were taken. The state’s Supreme Court agreed that employers do not have to police meal breaks but do need to relieve workers of duties at those times. In other significant rulings the court:
• Held, as to rest breaks, California employees are entitled to 10 minutes of rest for shifts from 3.5 to 6 hours in length, 20 minutes for shifts of more than 6 and up to 10 hours and 30 minutes for shifts of more than 10 hours up to 14 hours.
• Clarified that California wage-and-hour law does not dictate in what sequential order meal and rest periods must be taken and does not prohibit an employer from scheduling meal periods early within the shift. While the first meal break must be made available within the first five hours of work, there is no “rolling five-hour rule,” which would require an employer to provide a meal period for each five hours worked.
• Upheld the appellate court decision claims of off-the-clock work were not appropriate for class certification, saying that, “