EMPLOYEE MEAL AND REST PERIODS « Law Offices of Timothy Bowles | Top Employment Law Firm in Los Angeles


Are California Employers Responsible if Workers Skip Them?

California companies must provide non-union workers with at least a 30 minute unpaid meal break between shifts and at least a ten minute paid break during each shift. See, Employee Meal Periods and Rest Breaks, California’s Basic Requirements for R&R,” April 8, 2011.

However, even though the applicable statutes were enacted more than ten years ago (California Labor Code sections 226.7 [2000] and 512 [1999]), the courts have still not resolved just what “providing” a break or meal period means.  Labor Code 226.7(a) very clearly prohibits employers from requiring employees to work “during any [required] meal or rest period.” However, must businesses go further? Does the state require a business to ensure employees take their breaks and meals by policing the workplace? Or is it enough for an employer to provide the schedule that permits a worker to take advantage of rest breaks and meal periods, leaving it up to the worker?

The issue has significant economic consequences in some industries, for example restaurants where a server may well want to skip a break in order to maximize tips.

The California Supreme Court is expected to place most or all of the controversy at rest in Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court of San Diego County (Hohnbaum). The Court heard oral argument this week in the case (November 8, 2011) and must issue its opinion within 90 days, by early Feburary, 2011.

The Brinker company operates some 137 restaurants in the state, including Chili’s Grill & Bar, Romano’s Macaroni Grill and Maggiano’s Little Italy.  Its written policy for unpaid meal periods and paid rest breaks provides that employees are “entitled to a 30-minute meal period” when they “work a shift that is over five hours.”  It also provides that employees who clock out for a meal period “must clock out for a minimum of 30 minutes.”  It also states that employees who work “over 3.5 hours” during a shift are “eligible for one [10-]minute rest break for each 4 hours that [they] work.”

While this is a straightforward, standard statement of the California standards, the five named employees challenge Brinker’s alleged actual practices – including purportedly requiring servers to give up tables and tips if they want to take a break and allegedly scheduling employee meal periods too early in the first shift, thus missing a first break. Those employees also seek to certify their suit as a class action that would potentially hold Brinker’s liable to most or all servers in each of its restaurants statewide.  This of course significantly raises the stakes of the decision.  We will keep you posted on the results in the Supreme Court.  Whatever that outcome,  contact an employment law attorney who can provide knowledgeable guidance on meal and rest policies and practices.