California Employers Do Not Need to Guarantee No Work Meal Breaks
Last week, the California Supreme Court issued a state wage law decision holding major implications for employers with California operations. The case concluded that while California law requires employers to offer meal breaks to non-exempt employees, the employer does not need to make sure that workers are actually taking the breaks.
In Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Ct., a class action wage lawsuit alleged that over 59,000 current and former employers of the Brinker chain were entitled to back pay and liquidated damages because although the employer provided the required breaks, employees often did not take them due to workload issues. The employer contended that as long as it relieves employees of all duties and offers such breaks, it is not culpable if the employee decides not to take the time off.
The California Supreme Court agreed, affirming dismissal of the class action claim. The court noted that employers cannot impede, discourage or deter employees from taking the breaks. However the employer is not required under California law to compel the employees to actually take the time off. Because there was no evidence of any company policy to deter use of meal breaks, the current class action was not sustainable.
This decision removes the requirement that California employers police employees' breaks to make sure that they are not sneaking work with them while eating lunch. Litigation in this area will now shift to factual questions as to whether the employer is directly or indirectly coercing workers to skip mandatory breaks due to workload issues.