California Supreme Court Clarifies Meal and Rest Break Periods
In Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court, the California Supreme Court clarified that employers must provide a 30-minute meal period by making it available to employees, but need not ensure that no work is done during that period. The court also held that hourly employees in California are entitled to paid ten-minute rest breaks at certain intervals, depending on the length of the work shift.
Key Litigated Issues
On April 12, 2012, the California Supreme Court issued its decision in Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court, clarifying issues associated with the meal and rest breaks that an employer must give to nonexempt employees in California. The key litigated issues were:
Timing requirements for meal breaks and when and how they must be provided.
Timing requirements for rest periods and when they must be provided.
Whether alleged claims regarding rest break, meal period and off-the-clock work violations were appropriate for class action treatment.
Several employees of restaurants owned by Brinker Restaurant Corporation filed a class action, claiming that Brinker failed to provide meal or rest breaks to its nonexempt employees as required by California law. The class included three subclasses, alleging violations of:
Unpaid off-the-clock work.
The trial court granted class certification. Brinker appealed to the California Court of Appeal, which reversed class certification for the three subclasses. The California Supreme Court granted review to resolve the class certification issue and the underlying wage and hour questions.
In a unanimous decision, the California Supreme Court clarified that, under the California Labor Code and related Industrial Wage Commission Wage Orders, employers must provide nonexempt employees with a 30-minute off duty meal period no later than after five hours of work. An employer meets its obligations if, during the meal period, the employer:
Relieves its employees of all duty.
Relinquishes control over the employee, who is allowed to leave the work premises.
Permits a reasonable opportunity for employees to take an uninterrupted 30-minute meal break, and does not impede or discourage employees from doing so.
Employers are not required to:
Ensure that no work is done during that meal break.
Pay employees the statutory premium of an hour of additional pay if they continue to work during a meal period, unless employees were pressured to do so by the employer. However, straight time pay may be required if the employer knew or reasonably should have known work was completed during the meal break.
For shifts longer than five hours, a second meal period must be provided no later than after ten hours of work.
For rest periods, the court clarified that nonexempt employees are entitled to:
Ten minutes' rest for shifts lasting from 3.5 to six hours.
20 minutes' rest for shifts of more than six hours up to ten hours.
30 minutes' rest for shifts of more than ten hours up to 14 hours.
Regarding the timing of meal and rest breaks, the court held that employers are not required to permit their employees a rest break before a meal period.
After clarifying the wage and hour questions, the court addressed whether the claims of the subclasses were appropriate for certification, concluding that:
For the rest break subclass, the plaintiffs' claims were sufficiently common for class action treatment.
The meal period subclass certification issue must be remanded for reconsideration in light of the clarified meal period law in the court's decision.
The claims of plaintiffs in the off-the-clock work subclass were not appropriate for class certification.
California employers should review their written policies for compliance with these clarified meal and rest break rules. Employers should also ensure that their practices regarding meal periods and rest breaks are properly administered to nonexempt employees.