California’s maze of meal-and-rest-break rules continues to generate lawsuits — and court decisions. The latest decision provides welcome news for many California employers facing class actions over the state’s break rules.

The California Supreme Court has held that employers must provide meal periods required by California law, but they do not have to ensure that workers actually take the meal breaks. The employer’s obligation “is to relieve its employee of all duty, with the employee thereafter at liberty to use the meal period for whatever purpose he or she desires, but the employer need not ensure that no work is done,” the Court explained. Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court (Hohnbaum), No. S166350 (Calif. Apr. 12, 2012). Should the employee choose to work after being relieved of duty, the employer must pay the employee for the time worked; however, the employee who chooses to work during his or her meal break is not entitled to the one hour of premium pay under California law for working during a meal break.

The Court agreed with the Labor Commissioner’s interpretation that, unless a waiver applies, the worker’s first meal period must start by the end of the fifth hour worked, and, if an employee is eligible for a second meal period, it must start by the end of the tenth hour worked. A waiver is permitted under the following circumstances:

  • If the day’s work will end within six hours;
  • A second meal period may be waived if the first was not waived and the workday will not exceed 12 hours; or
  • If the nature of the work cannot be interrupted (e.g., a continuous operation such as running a printing press), a voluntary on-duty meal period is permitted.

The Court also confirmed that workers must be permitted to take an uninterrupted net 10 minutes for each four hours worked “or major fraction thereof,” as required by the Industrial Welfare Commission Wage Orders. A “major fraction” means a fraction greater than one-half and in excess of two hours. Rest breaks must fall in the middle of work periods “insofar as practicable.” The Court offered no guidance as to what may be considered practicable.

Given the intricacies involved in implementing California break laws, employers should address specific scenarios with counsel.