As a business litigation attorney in San Jose, I am always concerned when clients are confronted with murky or unclear regulations. For many years, employers have been awaiting clarity on California's confusing meal and rest break laws. There has been uncertainty as to whether employers must force their non-exempt employees to take their meal breaks, or whether the employer meets its obligations by simply providing employees the opportunity to take their breaks. The California Supreme Court very recently provided much needed clarification on this important employment law issue in the case of Brinker Restaurant Corporation v. Superior Court of San Diego County.
The Court also addressed the proper method to calculate the timing of both meal and rest breaks, putting an end to the guessing game of how many breaks must be provided, and when the breaks must be given.
Employers Do Not Need To Police Employees During Meal Breaks
The Court decided that employers, while under a legal duty to provide meal breaks at appropriate intervals, are not obligated to ensure that employees do no work while on their breaks. The employer's obligation is simply to relieve its employees of their work duties, relinquish control over the employee's activities, and permit the employee a reasonable opportunity to take an uninterrupted 30-minute break. Of course, the employer must not impede or discourage the employee from taking the provided break.
Also of great importance was that the Court stated quite clearly that employers are not required to police meal breaks to ensure that no work is performed during the break. In fact, employees are free to work during their meal break, if they decide to do so.
Timing of Meal Breaks
The Court also provided clear guidance on the timing of meal breaks. The first meal break must be provided no later than the end of an employee's fifth hour of work. A second meal period must be provided no later than an employee's 10th hour of work. Meal periods can be scheduled prior to the end of the fifth hour of work, including in the first hour of work, and can occur before the first rest break.
Timing of Rest Breaks
The case also clarified when employees are entitled to rest breaks. Employees must be given one 10-minute rest break for shifts from three and one-half to six hours in length, two 10-minute rest breaks for shifts of more than six and up to 10 hours in length, and three 10-minute rest breaks for shifts more than 10 hours and up to 14 hours in length. Employees who work less than three and one-half hours are not entitled to a rest break. The Court also stated that there is no requirement for an employer to give a rest break before a meal break.
Overall, the business community and employer-side employment attorneys view the Brinker case as a common sense legal opinion that offers clear guidelines for handling employee meal and rest breaks. Furthermore, the case may have the effect of curtailing potential class-action lawsuits against California businesses that, prior to the Court's ruling, could have been accused of meal and rest break violations.