In a long-awaited, highly anticipated decision stemming from a class-action suit against the restaurant corporation that owns the Chili’s and Maggiano’s chains, the court ruled that employers are not required to stop those who want to keep working through their break periods.
Working through a lunch break is a common-enough practice, but now California’s highest court has ruled that employers are not obligated to stop it from happening, reports The Press-Enterprise of Riverside, Calif.
In a decision that has been closely watched in employment law circles for almost a decade, the California Supreme Court ruled on April 12 that, while state labor laws require an employer to provide meal breaks for workers, the company is not required to force employees to take those breaks, or to insist that workers don’t do any work-related activities while eating.
California state law mandates that anyone who works a shift longer than four hours be given a meal break of at least 30 minutes. Employees also are guaranteed 10-minute rest periods for each four hours, and the state laws, which will not change because of the state Supreme Court’s ruling, were written in a way that implies it is the employers’ responsibility, and not the workers’, to make sure these breaks are taken.
The court’s ruling said employers must relieve employees of all “duty” during meal periods, but need not ensure they perform no work.
The decision was considered a landmark, as it answered meal-break labor law questions that have left other class-action suits in limbo, due to what Robert Roginson, management lawyer and partner with the firm of Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo, says is ambiguous language in California’s Labor Code.
There have been numerous class-action lawsuits over violations of work break statutes in the past, including groups filing damages against Wal-Mart and Target. In 2010, Wal-Mart settled a class-action suit over meal breaks and rest periods for $75 million.
“The ebb and flow of business in dining establishments is contingent upon customer volume at a given time. Providing oversight to each and every employee’s meal-and-rest break would have been a huge challenge for employers all over California,” Roginson said in a statement. “This ruling strikes the right balance, ensuring employees are guaranteed meal breaks, while still giving them the flexibility to work when they have the greatest potential for commissions or tips.”
The decision stems from a lawsuit filed in 2002 by employees of Brinker Restaurant Corporation, the Dallas-based firm that owns the Chili’s Grill & Bar and Maggiano’s Little Italy chains, among others. The suit was brought by several of the chain’s hourly, nonexempt employees in the San Diego area, who said their supervisors often made them work through their break times.
The employees were encouraged to file the suit after California’s Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE) launched an investigation in 2002 into whether Brinker was complying with its obligations to provide rest and meal breaks, maintain proper records, and pay premium wages in the event required breaks were not provided.
The DLSE filed suit and eventually settled in exchange for Brinker’s payment of $10 million to redress injuries suffered by employees between 1999 and 2001 and the stipulation of a court-ordered injunction to ensure compliance with meal and rest break laws. In connection with the settlement, Brinker disclaimed all liability.
In the aftermath of the DLSE’s suit, one of the plaintiffs then filed a putative class action staff, seeking to represent the cooks, stewards, buspersons, wait staff, host staff and other hourly employees who staff Brinker’s restaurants. That suit alleged that Brinker failed to provide employees with the rest and meal breaks, or premium wages in lieu of those breaks, due them under law.
The suit also argued that Brinker required employees to work off-the-clock during meal periods and engaged in time shaving—unlawfully altering employee time records to misreport the amount of time worked and break time taken.
The suit contended that the governing law obligates an employer to provide a 30-minute meal period at least once every five hours. Brinker countered that no such timing obligation is imposed, and an employer satisfies its meal period obligations by providing one meal period for shifts more than five hours and two meal periods for shifts more than 10 hours.
The San Diego County Superior Court generally agreed with the plaintiffs, holding that an employer’s obligations are not satisfied simply by affording a meal period for each work shift longer than five hours, and that affording a meal period during the first hour of a 10-hour shift, with nothing during the remaining nine hours, would violate the obligation to provide a meal period for each five-hour work period.
After several subsequent rulings on appeals of the case, the California state Supreme Court agreed to review the case to try to resolve “lingering uncertainty” over the nature of rest and meal period obligations, and the suitability of such claims for class treatment.
In its 54-page opinion handed down on April 12, the Supreme Court concluded that an employer’s obligation is to relieve its employees of all duty during meal periods, leaving the employees at liberty to use the period for whatever purpose they desire, but that an employer need not ensure no work is done. In such situations, the court found, the employer is not liable for paying a premium wage and is liable for regular pay only if the employer “knew or reasonably should have known that the worker was working through the authorized meal period.”
“The difficulty with the view that an employer must ensure no work is done — i.e., prohibit work — is that it lacks any textual basis in the wage order or statute,” Justice Kathryn M. Werdegar wrote for the Court.
“While at one time the [Industrial Welfare Commission]‘s wage orders contained language clearly imposing on employers a duty to prevent their employees from working during meal periods, we have found no order in the last half-century continuing that obligation.” Werdegar continued, “Indeed, the obligation to ensure employees do no work may in some instances be inconsistent with the fundamental employer obligations associated with a meal break: to relieve the employee of all duty and relinquish any employer control over the employee and how he or she spends the time.”
As to when meal periods must be provided, the Court ruled a first meal break generally must fall no later than five hours into an employee’s shift. However, an employer does not need to schedule meal breaks at five-hour intervals throughout the shift, it noted.
As for rest periods, the Court explained that under the Industrial Welfare Commission’s orders, employees are entitled to 10 minutes of rest for shifts from three and one-half to six hours in length, and to another 10 minutes rest for shifts from six to 10 hours in length.
Rest periods need not be timed to fall specifically before or after any meal period, it added.
The decision prompted a flurry of response by employment-law experts and labor leaders throughout California and the nation, with opinions mixed over what it might now mean or how it could be interpreted.
“This is a great ruling for employers [with] a lot of 9-to-5 employees,” Joe Ortiz, who practices employment law for Riverside, Calif.-based Best Best & Krieger and represents companies in labor-related issues, told The Press-Enterprise. “We now have clarification for employers, and this will help them make decisions.”
One of California’s top labor leaders, however, said that the decision puts in play “a confusing and vague patchwork of concepts” for the subject of break time.
“The decision unnecessarily muddies the waters on businesses’ responsibility to provide meal breaks, which opens the door for worker exploitation,” Art Pulaski, executive secretary-treasurer of the California Labor Federation, said in a statement.
“Every worker deserves a meal break on the job. For many workers, the ability to take a break is critical to health and safety. By weakening current law, the California Supreme Court has sided with corporations over the rights of waitresses, health care workers, construction workers, retail workers and others,” Pulaski said.
“With its unjust decision in the Brinker case today, the Court struck a blow to workers’ fundamental right to take a meal break on the job and has left a confusing and vague patchwork of concepts that will encourage employers to continue to circumvent the law,” his statement added. “It shouldn’t be so hard to make employers do what is easily within their power to do: make sure workers get their meal breaks.”
One of the key words used when employment law issues are discussed, experts noted, is “control.” If an employee is under the control of her or his boss and is forced to work through a scheduled break, then the employer likely is violating the law, most experts agreed.
But a worker who declines to take a break or who works and eats at the same time is under his or her own control, and not the company’s, Ortiz said.
Ortiz, like many experts who commented on the issue, noted the irony of a controversy that grew from employees working through mandated break periods and, in effect, working too much.
Kim Stone, President of the Civil Justice Association of California—a non-profit, membership-supported coalition of citizens, taxpayers, businesses, local governments, professionals, manufacturers, financial institutions, insurers and medical organizations—came out in support of the Court’s ruling Thursday, reported the LegalNewsline.com website.
“Employers across California can breathe a huge sigh of relief today,” Stone said in a statement. “The Supreme Court wisely recognized that forcing an employee to take a break goes well beyond what is reasonable to require of an employer.
“Running a business is difficult enough without having to worry about making sure your employees are taking their breaks and then facing a lawsuit if certain employees chose not to,” Stone added.
Rex Heinke, Brinker’s lead attorney before the California Supreme Court, said the decision “defined key aspects of California’s meal and rest period laws – especially, that employers need not force their employees to take meal periods they would prefer to skip.”
Politicians also chimed in to express their support for the decision. “This is huge for small businesses across the state, from mom and pop restaurants to doctor offices to construction companies,” California’s Republican Minority Whip Assemblyman Dan Logue said in a statement. “Small businesses have been held hostage by California’s strict meal and rest break laws for years, and this will bring tremendous relief as our economy begins to emerge from the recession.”
The law firm of Fox Rothschild LLP in San Francisco issued this summary of what it felt were the key points for employers in light of the decision, which it called “a significant win” for employers:
- Employers do not have to police their employees to make sure they’re taking their meal breaks. They’re only required to (1) relieve employees of all duty; (2) relinquish control over their activities; and (3) permit them a reasonable opportunity to take an uninterrupted 30-minute break.
- Employers still need a meal break policy and still need to record the time that employees begin and end their breaks. But if employers make the breaks available (as specified in the prior paragraph) and an employee cuts his or her break short (or doesn’t take one), the employer does not owe a penalty. The employer would, however, need to pay the employee for the time worked.
- As before, an employer has to mean it when they say they’re making the meal breaks available. They can’t pressure employees or provide incentives for them to skip breaks.
- There is no rolling 5-hour rule or penalty if an employee works 5 consecutive hours without a meal period (as the plaintiffs in Brinker argued).
- The rules for rest breaks remain the same.