The long-awaited ‘meal and rest period’ case, Brinker, has finally been decided by the California Supreme Court after seven years of litigation and over two years pending on the Supreme Court docket.
Dramatic headlines such as this one have been typical in the news: “Managers Don’t Have to Ensure Lunch Breaks.” But, the truth embodied in the 55-page court opinion is much less sweeping. Still, this case is of immense importance to employers and employees alike, because it clarifies certain ambiguities present in California meal/rest period codes.
Here are the essential points that Brinker has made law:
- The 10-minute rest period does not need to be given prior to the 30-minute meal period.
- The 10-minute rest period does not need to be given for work shifts of less than 3 1/2 hours.
- Meal periods must commence before the start of a worker’s sixth hour of work (i.e. the break does not need to be completed during the fifth hour).
- Employers fulfill their obligation to “provide” meal periods so long as the employer has a clear policy that is actually implemented to allow employees to take a completely work-free meal break. After that, the employer is not required to “police” work areas to “ensure” that each worker is actually not working during his or her break. As the court stated: “the employer is not obligated to police meal breaks and ensure no work thereafter is performed. Bona fide relief from duty and the relinquishing of control satisfies the employer’s obligations, and work by a relieved employee during a meal break does not thereby place the employer in violation of its obligations and create liability for premium pay…”]
The last point was the most contentious of the issues in Brinker. The court found that the plaintiff-worker had not “presented substantial evidence of a systematic company policy to pressure or require employees to work off the clock,” but the court did note that an employer’s liability is contingent on proof that the employer “knew or should have known off-the-clock work was occurring.” Thus, it is still important for employers to have a clear and implemented policy for meal and rest periods, and to record each worker’s breaks.
The Brinker case was a class action. So, much of the court’s opinion - and its legal impact - deals with the technical aspects of class action “certification” (i.e. whether a case may proceed as a class action or not). Employers see the decision as favorable to them because it may make class action certification harder for workers to obtain. However, I don’t think Brinker will necessarily impact on a case brought by an individual worker on behalf of him or herself alone (i.e. not as a class action), especially when there is evidence that an employer has actively thwarted an employee’s ability to take breaks or knew that work was being performed off-the-clock.
For more information about meal and rest period law, click here to read my article Basics of Meal and Rest Period Law.
Click here to read the full text of the Brinker case.