California State law has mandated meal and rest breaks for decades. But in 2001, California became one of only a few states that impose a monetary penalty for employers who violate these laws, requiring employers to pay one hour of wages for a missed half-hour meal break. There is no federal law requiring employers to provide such breaks.
A case that began in San Diego County in 2004 came to a close on April 12, 2012 with a ruling handed down in the California Supreme Court. Attorneys for Brinker International, the parent company of Chili’s, and other eateries, said they were glad to finally have a decision.
The case, Brinker v. Superior Court, stems from a lawsuit filed in 2004 against Brinker. The original lawsuit, Hohnbaum v. Brinker Restaurant Corp., was filed by five employees in San Diego who claimed the company illegally denied them meal breaks for every five hours worked, as required by California labor law.
The California Supreme Court decided that “employers must relieve employees of all duty during meal periods but need not ensure they perform no work”. This sounds confusing but what it really means is that “employers need not force their employees to take meal periods they would prefer to skip” said Brinker’s lead attorney.
After the ruling, Brinker’s legal team commented on the ruling: “The Court’s definitive resolution of these critical issues offers clear and much-needed guidance not only to Brinker and their team members, but to hundreds of thousands of employers and employees statewide. It has been a pleasure to represent Brinker in this historic case, and we are delighted with the California Supreme Court’s decision, which will benefit all California employers and employees.”
In summary, if you are one of the thousands of workers employed by a California Restaurant:
Your employer does not need to police you to make sure you are taking a meal break. Your employer is required to (1) relieve you of all duty; (2) relinquish control over your activities; and (3) permit you a reasonable opportunity to take an uninterrupted 30-minute break.
If you want to cut your break short (or not take one), your employer does not owe you a penalty. Your employer would, however, need to pay you for the time worked.
Your employer must carry out their agreement about when they say they’re making the meal breaks available. They can’t pressure you or provide incentives for you to skip breaks.
There’s no penalty if you work 5 consecutive hours without a meal period (as the plaintiffs in Brinker argued). This is a huge relief because, when the Court asked for post-hearing briefing on this issue, it raised the possibility that almost every employer in the state had a policy that was wrong.
Brinker attorneys were confident that the new ruling would reduce future class-action lawsuits surrounding the meal break issue in California, which has cost companies millions of dollars in legal fees. Employers got most of what they wanted in the long-awaited Brinker meal-and-rest-break opinion issued by the California Supreme Court. But workers won some victories,.The court appeared to stick up for class actions more broadly, in contrast to some recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings. The Brinker wage-and-hour ruling turns almost exclusively on California law, but is likely to have an effect throughout the country.
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