CalSCt: California employers must make meal periods available, but don’t need to ensure that employees actually take them, state high court holds
Ruling at last on a case that has been pending before it since 2008, a unanimous California Supreme Court held April 12 that employers do not have a duty under the California Labor Code’s meal period provisions to make sure their hourly workers take their statutorily mandated meal periods; it’s enough to ensure that employees are offered the opportunity to take them (Brinker Restaurant Corp v Superior Court, April 12, 2012, Werdegar, K). This long-awaited ruling provides much-needed clarity on a vexing wage-hour issue, one that had divided the state’s lower courts.
“An employer’s duty with respect to meal breaks under both [Labor Code] section 512, subdivision (a) and Wage Order No. 5 is an obligation to provide a meal period to its employees. The employer satisfies this obligation 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,” the court wrote. “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.”
Class action implications? The Brinker decision below had reversed a grant of class certification to 59,000 restaurant employees who had alleged they were denied meal and rest breaks and were forced to work off the clock. Significantly, the employer had argued, if meal and rest breaks need only be made available to employees and the actual taking of breaks not enforced, there could be a myriad of reasons why employees did not take their breaks — reasons that could only be decided based on individualized inquiries on a case-by-case basis — so claims over missed meal and rest periods thus were not amenable to class treatment. Therefore, in addition to establishing the standard of liability for employers in meal break claims, observers had been looking to the decision for its potential significance on the class action front as well.