In Long Awaited Brinker Decision, California Supreme Court Affirms Employers’ Duty to Provide a Thirty-Minute, Uninterrupted Meal Period

The California Supreme Court has laid clear, after much confusion, the proper standard by which employers must provide their employees with meal periods, imposing an affirmative burden to completely relieve their employees from duty so that the employees may take full, thirty-minute, uninterrupted meal periods. If the employer fails to meet its obligation to do so, the damaged employee is eligible for a meal period premium of an hour’s worth of wages. In addition, the Court has clarified the standard by which meal period and rest break class actions may be certified and laid forth the appropriate standard for the timing of meal and rest periods.

In Brinker, the Court points out that, if an employee works five or more hours in a shift, the employer must do one of three things: (1) afford the employee an off duty meal period; (2) reach a voluntary agreement with an employee on a meal period waiver if one hour or less will end the shift; or (3) obtain written agreement to an on-duty meal period if circumstances permit. If it does none of the three, it is liable for premium pay.

In addition, the Court makes it clear that employers may not skirt their obligations, emphasizing that “an employer may not undermine a formal policy of providing meal breaks by pressuring employees to perform their duties in ways that omit breaks.” The only steps an employer need not take are to “police” breaks and affirmatively ensure that no work is done.

With respect to class certification, the Court has put an abrupt halt to the disturbing trend of trial courts reaching the merits of a case at the class certification stage, before the parties have even had the opportunity to fully flesh out the evidence in a case. It clarified that a court may only look at the legal merits of a case in limited circumstances, and it reaffirmed the appropriateness of class actions in this legal area.

Lastly, the Court clarified the timing requirements for provision of meal periods, namely, that the first meal period be provided after no more than five hours of work and, for those employees who work a shift of ten hours or more, a second meal period be provided after no more than ten hours of work.

In sum, the Court clarified employees’ right to a meal period, protected class actions as a way of vindicating this right, and ensured that employers do not delay meal periods until too late in a shift.

Darin Ranahan
May 9, 2012