by Sayema Hameed
On April 12, 2012, the California Supreme Court issued its long-anticipated decision in Brinker Restaurant Corporation et al. v. Superior Court (Hohnbaum) (Cal. Sup. Ct. Case No. S166350). This case concerns a class action for failure to provide meal and rest breaks brought by non-exempt employees against defendant Brinker Restaurant Corporation, which owns and operates restaurants throughout California including Chili’s Grill & Bar and Maggiano’s Little Italy. The Supreme Court’s decision is important in clarifying an employer’s obligations under California law with respect to providing meal and rest breaks to employees. In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court held as follows:
(1) Duty To Provide Meal Breaks: Under California law, employers must make meal periods available to employees by relieving the employee of all duty, but employees then have the choice to use the meal period for whatever purpose he or she desires. An employer’s obligation to provide meal breaks is satisfied if the employer (i) relieves the employee of all duty, (ii) relinquishes control over the employee’s activities and permits him or her the opportunity to take an uninterrupted 30-minute break, and (iii) does not discourage or impede the employee from doing so.
However, the employer is not required to police meal breaks and not required to ensure that the employee performs no work during the break. If an employer provides an employee with a compliant meal period, but the employee performs work during the meal break, the employer will not be in violation of California law regarding meal breaks.
(2) Meal Break Timing: California law requires that an employer must provide employees with one meal period (of at least 30 minutes) after no more than five (5) hours of work, and a second meal period after no more than ten (10) hours of work. The first meal period must occur no later than the start of an employee’s sixth (6th) hour of work, and the second meal period must occur no later than the start of the eleventh (11th) hour of work.
(3) Rest Break Timing: California law requires all employers to provide 10-minute rest periods to employees in the middle of each work period. The number of rest periods given to the employee depends on the total hours worked in a shift. The Supreme Court interpreted this rest break requirement to mean that an employee working a shift of less than 3 1/2 hours is not required to receive a rest break, but employees are entitled to a one 10-minute rest period for shifts from 3 1/2 hours up to 6 hours in length, two 10-minute rest periods for shifts of more than 6 hours up to 10 hours, three 10-minute rest periods for shifts of more than 10 hours up to 14 hours, and so on.
Furthermore, as a general matter, in the context of an eight-hour shift, one 10-minute rest period should fall on either side of the employee’s meal break. Employers should avoid placing both rest breaks before the meal break and none after.
(4) Class Action Certification: In the absence of substantial evidence of a uniform company-wide policy or practice requiring employees to work “off the clock” without compensation, it is improper to certify a class action for class members claiming “off-the-clock” compensation. Instead, proof of off-the-clock liability would have to continue in an employee-by-employee fashion, demonstrating who worked off the clock, how long they worked, and whether Brinker knew or should have known of their work.
This decision offers guidance to employers and employees alike regarding their respective obligations and rights concerning meal and rest breaks under California law. Employers, in particular, should pay close attention to this decision and ensure that their meal and rest break policies comply with the requirements set forth in the Brinker decision.
You can read the California Supreme Court opinion here: Brinker California Supreme Court Opinion