The California Supreme Court issued its decision in Brinker Restaurant Corporation v. Superior Court regarding an employer's obligations under state law to provide meal and rest breaks to their employees. The Court ruled that employers have a duty to provide meal and rest periods to employees but employers need not ensure that no work is performed during the breaks. The Court's ruling is a significant victory for private employers that may stem the tidal wave of meal break litigation that has been enveloping California employers over the past decade.
Brinker Restaurant Corporation operates 137 restaurants in California including Chili's Grill and Bar and Maggiano's Little Italy. This litigation began when five hourly nonexempt employees sued Brinker purporting to represent a class of employees who had allegedly been denied their meal and break periods and who had been forced to work "off the clock" without compensation. The employees alleged a number of claims against Brinker including that the company failed to provide nonexempt employees with mandated 10-minute rest periods and 30-minute meal periods as required by law. On appeal, the Supreme Court examined an employer's obligation to provide meal and rest periods to employees and the timing of these breaks under the California Labor Code and Industrial Welfare Commission ("IWC") Wage Orders.
The Supreme Court ruled that employers only have a duty to provide meal periods, but need not ensure that they are taken. The Court specifically noted that "the employer is not obligated to police meal breaks and ensure that no work thereafter is performed." Further, the Court clarified that the duty to provide a meal break is satisfied when an employer relieves its employees of all duties, 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.
As for the timing of meal breaks, the Court held that the first 30-minute meal period must occur 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 10th hour of work. In other words, if the shift is less than 10 hours, then employees must take their first meal period no later than the start of their sixth hour of work. If the shift is more than 10 hours but no more than 12 hours, then second meal period must be taken no later than the start of the 11th hour of work unless it is waived by mutual agreement of the employer and employees.
The Court also ruled that employers have a duty to make a good faith effort to authorize and permit rest periods in the middle of each work day. The Court also held that employers may deviate from this "preferred course where practical considerations render it feasible" but declined to express an opinion on what those considerations might be. In reaching this decision, the Court rejected plaintiffs' argument that employers are required to allow their employees to take a rest break before a meal period.
In addition, the Court's decision set forth guidelines regarding the number of rest periods that an employer is required to provide to employees. The Court held that employees are entitled to 10 minutes' rest for shifts from three and one-half to six hours in length. If the shift is more than six hours up to 10 hours, then employees are entitled to 20 minutes of rest (or two 10 minute breaks). Finally, if the shift is more than 10 hours up to 14 hours, then employees are entitled to 30 minutes of rest (or three 10 minute breaks).
Certification of Classes of Employees
The Court also considered the issue of whether the trial court properly certified various classes for class action status. The Court ruled that certification of the issue of whether employees were provided with rest breaks was proper because all employees were subject to the employer's rest break policy. The Court remanded the matter to the trial court to reconsider whether certification of the meal break class was proper, and the scope of the meal break class, in light of the Court's rulings.
Finally, the Court ruled that a class should not have been certified regarding the employee's claims that they worked "off the clock" during their meal breaks without compensation. The Court found that the employer had a policy prohibiting off the clock work without compensation and the employees had not offered evidence of a systematic company policy to pressure or require employees to work off the clock. Additionally, the fact that employees had clocked out to take their meal breaks created a presumption that they were not working, which the employees would be required to rebut by showing that the employer knew or should have known they were working during their meal breaks. Since proof that the employer knew the employees were not following company policy would require individualized evidence as to each employee's particular situation, a class action should not have been certified on the off the clock claims.
What Brinker Means for Private Employers?
Brinker restores some common sense to California's wage and hour laws. Although employers still are obligated to provide meal and rest breaks to their non-exempt employees, they need not take extreme measures to make sure that their non-exempt employees are actually taking their breaks. However, the decision does not absolve employers from liability if the employer's policies and/or practices do not provide non-exempt employees with timely meal and rest breaks. Additionally, employers may still be liable for off the clock work performed during meal breaks if the employer knew or should have known that the employee was working through the meal break. Employers still cannot require employees to perform any duties during their meal breaks.
The decision reinforces the importance of having sound meal and rest break policies and strong overtime policies that prohibit non-exempt employees from working "off the clock" and from failing to report all time worked to the employer. Since Brinker had a strong policy preventing off the clock overtime, it was able to avoid a class action on those claims. Conversely, Brinker was unable to avoid certification of a rest break class action because its rest break policy appeared unlawful on its face. Thus, employers should ensure that they have strong and legally sound break and overtime policies.