California Supreme Court Clarifies Meal and Rest Break Requirements Under State Law

In its long-anticipated decision in Brinker v. Superior Court, a unanimous California Supreme Court has clarified the scope of an employer’s obligation to provide meal and rest breaks to non-exempt employees in California.  The Court's full opinion is available here.

Meal Breaks

California law requires employers to provide employees with a meal period of not less than 30 minutes for workdays lasting more than five hours, and to provide two meal periods for workdays in excess of ten hours, subject to waiver in certain circumstances.  At issue in Brinker was whether an employer must ensure that an employee’s work stops for the required 30 minutes, or whether an employer is only obligated to make meal periods available, with no responsibility for whether they are taken.  The Court concluded 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.  The employer must relinquish control over its employee’s activities and give the employee a reasonable opportunity to take an uninterrupted 30 minute break, and the employer may not impede or discourage the employee from doing so.  However, the employer is not obligated to police meal breaks and ensure no work is performed. 

Timing of Meal Breaks

The Court held that an employer must provide a first meal period no later than the end of an employee’s fifth hour of work, and a second meal period no later than the end of an employee’s tenth hour of work.  The Court found that there are no additional timing requirements, such as rolling five hour meal periods. 

Rest Periods

Under California law, employers must authorize and permit employees to take rest periods based on the total hours worked daily, at the rate of ten minutes net rest time per four hours worked or major fraction thereof.  A rest period need not be authorized for employees whose total daily work time is less than three and one-half hours.  The Court summarized the rest period obligation as follows: employees are entitled to ten minutes’ rest for shifts from three and one-half hours to six hours in length, 20 minutes for shifts of more than six hours up to ten hours, 30 minutes for shifts of more than ten hours up to 14 hours, and so on.  The 10-minute breaks must fall within the middle of a four hour period of work, to the extent practicable.

Timing of Rest Periods

The Court held that employers do not have a duty to permit their employees a rest period before any meal period.

What Brinker Means For Employers

Brinker is generally regarded as a favorable ruling for employers, and the decision provides a roadmap for employers to reduce the risk of claims arising from alleged meal and rest period violations.  Post-Brinker, it is essential that California employers carefully review and, if necessary, revise policies to state that meal periods are duty-free, 30 minutes in length and are to be taken before the end of the fifth hour of work.  Rest period policies should now detail that rest periods are authorized and permitted in accordance with the specific standards set forth above.

Employers should continue to require employees to clock out and in for meal breaks, and to carefully monitor and manage whether employees are working through their meal periods.  Employers are liable for straight time or overtime pay if they know or should have known employees have worked through meal breaks. If an employee is not clocking out for meals, an employer would likely be found to be on notice that the employee continued to work and thus should be paid for that time.  Additionally, if there is a pattern of employees not taking meal periods, or taking meal periods of less than 30 minutes in length or after the end of the fifth hour of work, management should look into whether the employees are really being given the opportunity to take timely 30-minute off-duty meal periods.

Finally, supervisors and managers should be trained on the importance of allowing employees to take meal and rest periods as prescribed in Brinker.  While the outcome in Brinker is good news for employers, managers who discourage or prevent employees from taking meal or rest breaks will expose the company to substantial liability.

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