In a highly-anticipated published opinion, the California Court of Appeal, Fourth Appellate District, has settled the issue of what it means to “provide” a meal period. In the sea of wage and hour class action cases burdening California’s courts, litigants and judges have been struggling over what, exactly, employers are obligated to do: force employees to take their rest and meal periods, or merely “provide” them. For now, pending the plaintiffs’ anticipated appeal to the California Supreme Court, the answer is “provide” or “make available.” “While employers cannot impede, discourage or dissuade” employees from taking rest and/or meal periods, they “need only provide, not ensure,” rest and meal periods are taken. The Court explained, with respect to rest breaks, that “as long as employers make rest breaks available to employees, and strive, where practicable, to schedule them in the middle of the first four-hour work period, employers are in compliance.”

The Court also rejected the argument that the employer violated the Labor Code by providing “early lunches” within an hour of an employee’s arrival at work, even if employees then had to work more than five hours without an additional meal break. Utilizing a “common sense meaning” of statutory language, the Court reasoned that a California employer must provide a 30-minute meal break to non-exempt employees who are permitted to work more than five hours per day, not for every five hours worked. The Court settled other highly significant issues, holding that: (i) employers can only be liable for employees working off the clock if they “knew or should have known” that employees were doing so; and (ii) because individual issues predominate in rest and meal period and off the clock claims, such claims are “not amenable to class treatment.”

This ruling, at least while it remains good law, will have far-reaching and economically significant impacts in the hundreds of thousands of wage and hour class action cases that are pending throughout California.