The California Supreme Court’s decision last month in Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court, No. S166350 (Cal. Sup. Ct. Apr. 12, 2012), lays to rest much of the confusion concerning the requirements for rest and meal breaks for non-exempt employees in California. The Supreme Court found that: (a) there is no rule requiring a break every five hours for a non-exempt worker; and (b) an employer needs only “relieve the employee of all duty for the designated [meal] period, but need not ensure that the employee does no work.” In other words, non-exempt workers are entitled to a 30-minute meal period when a shift lasts more than five hours, but there is no specific legal requirement as to the timing of other breaks within a worker’s shift.
The Supreme Court conceded in its opinion that there could be situations in which employers may be liable for enforcing policies that essentially force employees to work during their breaks or otherwise abuse the flexibility given to employers regarding break times. Yet, in those cases, the employees would have the burden of demonstrating how their rights had been abused. The mere fact that an employee chooses to work during a meal break, or that an employer spaces employees’ breaks in such a way that an employee works more than five hours straight, is not an automatic legal violation in California.
The Brinker case presented the Supreme Court with an opportunity to clarify California employment law. The workers in Brinker based their theories of liability on their reading of wage orders from the Industrial Welfare Commission (IWC), which they believed conflicted with California’s Labor Code. California allows the independent IWC to make laws relating to wage and hour protections for workers, alongside the California Legislature’s own law-making in the employment sector. In Brinker, the Supreme Court ultimately found that there was no disagreement between the IWC and the Legislature.
Although the Brinker decision provides some flexibility for employers, California employers will still need to ensure that non-exempt employees are allotted the legally required break and meal-times while working. Employers with questions should consult with their Masuda Funai relationship attorney regarding the wage, hour, and break requirements for their California employees and to ensure adequate records are being kept for all these matters.