California employers have been waiting since October 2008 for the California Supreme Court to issue its ruling in the Brinker Restaurant case, clarifying whether employers must “ensure” that employees take meal and rest breaks or simply “provide” those breaks. Today, the court unanimously served up a major victory to California employers with its decision.
In her opinion, Justice Kathryn Werdegar held that employers must provide an off-duty meal break to employees during the first five hours of work, yet employers are not required to ensure that the break is taken.
Relying upon statutory text, the court found no support for an employer’s obligation to enforce the meal break that it provided. The court was clear, however, that the law will not “countenance an employer exerting coercion against . . . or otherwise encourage the skipping of legally protected breaks.”
The court made several other rulings regarding the law of class certification and the mathematical technicalities of exactly when rest breaks and meal breaks must be given, but that was all icing on the cake. Substantial news for employers to digest is that they must provide an off-duty meal break within five hours of the start of an employee’s shift but need not force-feed an employee who refuses to take it.
Employers will still get in trouble if they create a circumstance in which an employee cannot take lunch — for example, by giving employees tasks that require them to work through lunch or by pressuring them to skip lunch. But if your policy permits employees to take an off-duty lunch break and you provide that opportunity, you need not police their conduct.
We will cover this case in more detail in the next issue of California Employment Law Letter.
Mark I. Schickman is a partner with Freeland Cooper & Foreman LLP in San Francisco and the editor of California Employment Law Letter. If you have questions about this case, he can be reached at (415) 541-0200.