Employers Need Not Police Meal Breaks; California Supreme Court Finally Rules in Brinker Case

After waiting more than three years for a decision, California employers recently got the news they had been hoping for: the California Supreme Court held that an “employer need not ensure that no work is done during an employee’s meal period.” Rather, the employer need only “relieve[] its employees of all duty, relinquish[] control over their activities and permit[] them a reasonable opportunity to take an uninterrupted 30-minute break" without "impede[ing] or discourag[ing] them from doing so.”

The long-awaited decision in Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court comes as a relief to employers who were facing, with a contrary ruling, near-strict liability for the state's already heavy-handed meal and rest break laws. Court watchers were ultimately not surprised by the decision, as forcing employers to police and ensure employees' meal break compliance was widely considered to be an impossible standard for employers to meet. Nevertheless, the Court's lengthy consideration of the case (which included two rounds of briefing) caused some to worry.

We must stress that the ruling does not lessen the previously understood requirements about how employers should make meal breaks available, and there should be no loss of diligence in enforcing existing policies. Indeed, those with California work forces should take a few minutes to review their meal and rest break policies--and to impress upon managers and employees the importance of these policies -- to ensure compliance with the applicable laws.

Specifically: Employers must provide an uninterrupted 30-minute meal break to its nonexempt employees before the end of the fifth hour of work, if the shift is 5-10 hours long, and a second meal break prior to the 10th hour of work, if the shift is ten or more hours long. Note: If, and only if, the employee has signed a valid meal waiver, the employer need not provide a meal break for a shift that does not last more than six hours. Failure to provide a meal break will, as before, result in a penalty for the employer in the amount of one hour's pay at the employee's regular rate.

This Client Alert has been prepared by Lewis and Roca LLP for informational purposes only and is not legal advice. Readers should seek professional legal advice on matters involving these issues.

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