Question:

I must have gotten 10 emails last week about the new meal and rest period court decision. To be honest, I’m not sure I understand what all the buzz is about. Could you explain the court’s ruling, and why this is apparently so important?

Answer:

You’re certainly correct about this recent court decision creating a lot of discussion about meal and rest period requirements for employers in California. On July 22, 2008, a California appellate court issued a decision regarding employers’ obligations concerning meal and rest periods for employees.  In this decision, which was highly anticipated, the court looked at two important issues. First, it examined what it means for an employer to “provide” meal and rest periods. Second, the court decided whether or not an employer could provide the meal period in the beginning of the employee’s shift, without having to provide a second meal period.

In the case of Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court, employees brought a class action lawsuit against the owner of Chili’s Grill & Bar, Romano’s Macaroni Grill, and Maggiano’s Little Italy, claiming (among other things) that 59,000 employees had not been provided with proper meal or rest periods because they were required to take their meal period within the first hour that they worked, and were not given an additional meal period during the remainder of their shifts.

The employees argued that this violated the “5-hour rule” for meal periods contained in California Labor Code §512, and the Industrial Welfare Commission wage orders, which state in part, “an employer may not employ an employee for a work period of more than five hours per day without providing the employee with a meal period of no less than 30 minutes.”

The Court ruled that there is no “rolling” 5-hour meal period requirement, and that the employer therefore was not required to provide its employees with a meal period for every 5-hour period that they worked. In other words, employees who took their meal break within the first hour of their shift were not entitled to another meal period after they had worked for 5 more consecutive hours. The entitlement to a second meal period generally applies only when the employee works a ten-hour shift or longer.

In addition, the court defined what it means to “provide” a meal or rest period under California law, holding that while employers cannot impede, discourage or dissuade employees from taking meal or rest periods, they need only “provide,” not “ensure,” that meal and rest periods are taken. Also, employers need only authorize and permit rest periods every four hours or major fraction thereof. Rest periods do not necessarily need to be taken in the middle of each work period, as was previously thought.

The court reasoned that requiring employers to ensure that employees actually take available breaks and meal periods would place an undue burden on employers, especially those with numerous employees. In so holding, the Brinker Court rejected the argument that employers are required to police their employees, and to force them to take rest breaks and meal periods, noting that for employers with “thousands of employees working multiple shifts, this would be an impossible task.” 

While many are viewing the court’s ruling as a victory for California employers, the true impact of this decision is not yet clear, and there are several issues that are unresolved. It is extremely likely that the plaintiffs in the case will petition to have the decision reviewed by the California Supreme Court, and that the meal and rest period rules will be subject to further interpretation.  In the meantime, employers should consult with legal counsel before making any changes to their own policies and practices with regard to meal and rest period compliance.
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