Brinker: California’s Meal Break Breakthrough « Law Offices of Timothy Bowles | Top Employment Law Firm in Los Angeles

Brinker: California’s Meal Break Breakthrough

Employers are No Longer the Lunch Police

In 2000, California enacted Labor Code 226.7, requiring employers to pay an employee an extra hour of compensation for “each work day that the [required] meal or rest period is not provided.”  Fueled by that financial incentive, nearly overnight, and for the past 11 years, the vast majority of wage-related lawsuits we have defended for California employers have thus included a seemingly automatic claim for alleged missed meal and rest breaks.    It has not been unusual for even a single worker seeking relief to assert thousands of dollars owing over this issue.

Under Labor Code 226.7, employers must provide all hourly employees who work more than five hours in a day with an uninterrupted, unpaid 30-minute meal break.  The tens of thousands of lawsuits that have arisen from this section have largely centered on just what “provides” means here.  For example, is an employer obligated to pay an employee that extra hour of pay if that worker has voluntarily chosen to work through his or her meal period?  Does the law require employers to in effect become the lunch police?

In its widely reported Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court (Hohnbaum) decision (April 12, 2012), the California Supreme Court unanimously concluded that requiring an employer to enforce such meal periods goes too far.  An employer satisfies its obligation to provide unpaid meal periods when “it relieves its employees of all duty, relinquishes control over their activities and permits them a reasonable opportunity to take an uninterrupted 30-minute break, and does not impede or discourage them from doing so.”

However, should an hourly employee decide to continue working through a provided meal period, the employer must compensate that worker for the time when it “knew or reasonably should have known” about such work.   The extra work time could also trigger overtime compensation in the event a worker then puts in more than eight hours of labor in a given day.

Chili’s restaurant workers filed the case eight years ago against parent company Brinker International, Inc.  They argued the law should require management to issue and enforce directives requiring workers to take their meal breaks and that the employer exploits employees, largely dependent on restaurant tips, who naturally do not want to take their meals during busy periods.

The Supreme Court disagreed, finding a requirement that companies police meal breaks unmanageable.   The decision of course does not absolve California employers from clearly communicating in policies and notices that all hourly workers are entitled to such unpaid meal periods.  Employers must also strive to make such periods available at reasonable and viable times during the workday.

The Brinker decision also covered important issues on hourly worker rights to paid rest periods.  We will cover such points in an upcoming article.

With the aid of knowledgeable legal counsel, employers should promptly review their meal break and rest period policies to ensure they are consistent with Brinker.

(Photo: Oklahoma Historical Society)

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