Meal and Rest Break Guidance from California Supreme Court

Last week, the California Supreme Court issued a long-awaited decision in Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court, a huge class action lawsuit alleging that employees were denied meal and rest breaks and required to work off the clock. Brinker owns a number of restaurant chains, including Chili’s and Romano’s Macaroni Grill. The lawsuit, initially filed by five employees, turned into a class action on behalf of almost 60,000 Brinker employees statewide. That group was divided into three subclasses: employees who were required to work more than five hours without a meal break; employees who were required to work more than three-and-a-half hours without a rest break; and employees who were forced to work off the clock (that is, to do work for which they were not paid).

California law requires employers to provide a ten-minute paid rest break for every four hours “or major fraction thereof” an employee works. However, no rest break need be provided to employees who work less than three-and-a-half hours total. As for meals, California law prohibits employers from requiring employees to work more than five hours without giving them a 30-minute meal break; this time is unpaid. In the Brinker case, the parties argued about when (that is, in what part of an employee’s shift) these breaks must be provided and what obligation the employer had to make sure the employee didn’t work through breaks. They also disputed whether these issues could properly be decided for the whole class or whether they should instead be decided on a case by case basis.

The Court issued a broad opinion, deciding not only the issues directly before it but a few more that are sure to come up as the lawsuit proceeds. Here’s the upshot:

Rest breaks: The Court had a math fight with the Court of Appeals on the “major fraction” language. (The Court of Appeals found that an employer could provide only one break in a seven-and-a-half hour shift.) The Supreme Court concluded that employees who work at least three-and-a-half hours but no more than six hours are entitled to one rest break; employees who work at least six hours but no more than ten are entitled to a second rest break; and so on. The Court also rejected the employees’ argument that one rest break must be provided before the meal period and one after in an eight-hour shift. Although the Court agreed that this made sense “as a general matter,” it declined to state a rigid rule regarding the timing of meals and breaks.

Meal breaks: There were a couple of big questions here. First, what is the employer’s duty during meal breaks? The Court found that the employer must provide a 30-minute meal break, during which the employee is entirely relieved of duties and is free to leave the work site. The employees wanted to impose an additional requirement that employers ensure employees do no work during their lunch, but the Court refused. If the employer pressures employees to work through their breaks, however, it violates this provision, and is liable not only to pay the employee for the break time, but also to pay a penalty. Second, the employees wanted the Court to require a meal break every five hours, so that if the first one was taken toward the start of a shift, the employee would be entitled to a second break five hours later. The Court disagreed: Employees are entitled to a meal break before they finish five hours of work; if an employee works ten hours, the employee is entitled to a second break. There is no requirement that the meal breaks be no more than five hours apart.

Class claims: The Court decided that the rest break claims could proceed as a class action, because they were based on the employer’s policies and procedures. The Court sent back the meal break claim so the trial court could decide whether a class should be certified under the Court’s interpretation of the five-hour rule. The Court rejected the idea of class certification on the employees’ claim that they were required to work off the clock, finding that it was based not on a company-wide policy, but on the actions of individual employees and managers.

This case has been touted as a win for employers, and it is — but mostly in the sense that adopting the employees’ arguments would have greatly expanded their rights as previously understood under California law. The Court didn’t take away any established employee rights with this opinion. While it’s not fun to have to take your “lunch” shortly after starting an eight-hour shift, then work on without a substantial break for many hours (and trust me, I’ve been there), it’s also a fairly common practice, especially in service industries where employees can’t all take their breaks at the same time. In this case, the trial court found entirely for the employees, then the Court of Appeal reversed and went entirely for the employer. The Supreme Court’s opinion seems to just rebalance the scales to where most people thought they were in the first place.