Meal and rest

By CMTA Staff

Capitol Update, April 13, 2012

The California Supreme Court issued an important decision this week regarding the responsibility of employers to provide meal and rest breaks.  In brief, the Court found that “an employer’s obligation is to relieve its employee of all duty, with the employee thereafter 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.” This holding is a defeat for labor groups who have argued that an employer is obligated to “ensure that work stops for the required thirty minutes.”

State law obligates employers to afford their nonexempt employees meal and rest periods during the workday. The Labor Code prohibits an employer from requiring an employee “to work during any meal or rest period mandated by an applicable order of the Industrial Welfare Commission.” Employers who violate these requirements must pay premium wages.

The “Brinker” case began as a class action lawsuit against a restaurant chain alleging that employees had been regularly denied, or didn’t take, meal and rest breaks and were therefore owed premium rates of pay for the period worked. However, the ability to certify and proceed as a class action depended upon a finding that all the members of the class had claims based on a common factual circumstance and that individual questions of fact did not predominate. In this case, in order to certify the classes, the court needed to explore the nature of the employer’s obligation.  Specifically, if individual workers may freely choose to work, or not, during a meal or rest break offered by an employer, it is more difficult to certify that the facts and claims are similar for all employees, and that premium pay is owed to all.

More difficult, but not impossible. The Supreme Court found that the Appellate Court erred in denying class certification for certain employees who were alleged to have not been offered rest breaks in the correct time periods as required under the law.

Further, even if an employer does not have to “police” the employees to ensure they are not working during their meal periods, the Court agreed with the Department of Labor Standards and Enforcement that “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.”

While the decision is a clear victory for employers and their employees who want flexibility, the Court concluded that while an employer satisfies the law if it relieves its employees of all duty, relinquishes control over their activities and permits them a reasonable opportunity to take an uninterrupted 30-minute break, and does not impede or discourage them from doing so, “What will suffice may vary from industry to industry, and we cannot in the context of this class certification proceeding delineate the full range of approaches that in each instance might be sufficient to satisfy the law.”

A copy of the decision is here: decision 20120412.pdf

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