Breaking—The Brinker Decision: Supreme Court Issues Favorable Meal Break Decision But Surprising Rest Break Decision
Today the California Supreme Court issued its long-awaited decision in Brinker v. Superior Court, laying to rest some greatly litigated issues surrounding California’s meal break requirements. The biggest issue on which employers were awaiting guidance is whether employers are required to provide non-exempt employees the opportunity to take a 30-minute meal break, or whether employers must ensure that employees comply and perform no work for a full 30 minute period. On this issue, the Court held favorably for employers. The Court held that an employer satisfies its obligations if 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.” The Court specifically held that the law does NOT require employers to ensure no work is performed during the break, so long as the employer provided the break. The employer will not be liable to an employee who voluntarily chooses to perform work during his or her break or who chooses not to take a full 30 minute break. However, if an employer encourages the employee to do work during the meal break or otherwise effectively precludes the employee from taking a 30 minute meal break, the employer may then be liable for failing to provide required breaks.
The Court also addressed the issue of WHEN meal breaks must be provided. The Court made clear that California law requires a meal break to be provided at or before the end of the fifth hour of work (unless the employee’s shift is no more than 6 hours and the employee has waived the meal break). The Court rejected the plaintiff’s argument that employees are entitled to a second 30 minute meal break for every additional five hours worked. The plaintiff had argued that if an employee takes an early lunch (e.g. after 2 hours of work) and then works five more hours, the employee would be entitled to a second 30 minute meal break. The Court held that there is no such “rolling” five hour requirement for providing additional meal breaks. (Employers should note, of course, that if an employee works a shift in excess of 10 hours, the employee is entitled to a second 30 minute meal break.)
In addition to addressing these meal break issues, the Court also addressed California’s rest break requirements. In a somewhat surprising ruling, the Court interpreted California’s rest break requirements in a highly technical manner to require more than just the provision of a 10 minute rest break for every four hours worked (which is many employers’ understanding of the general rule). The Court essentially held that employees are entitled to a rest break of at least 10 minutes for every four hours worked, or major fraction thereof (meaning more than 2 hours). The exception is if the employees’ shift is not more than three and one-half hours, in which case no rest break need be provided. This does not raise any big issue for the typical eight hour employee shift, where the employee is provided two ten minute rest breaks. Where it gets complicated is a situation where an employee works, for example, six and one-half hours. According to the Court’s interpretation of the rest break rules, the employee should be provided two 10 minute rest breaks in that situation because the employee is working one four hour shift and then a “major fraction” of another four hour shift. In the words of the Court: “Employees are entitled to 10 minutes rest for shifts from three and one-half to six hours in length, 20 minutes for shifts of more than six hours up to 10 hours, 30 minutes for shifts of more than 10 hours up to 14 hours, and so on.”
In the specific case before the Court, Brinker had a rest break policy stating as follows: “If I work over 3.5 hours during my shift, I understand that I am eligible for one ten minute rest break for each four hours that I work.” The Court held that the plaintiff could establish this policy violated California law and denied a class of employees required rest breaks if “for example, Brinker under this uniform policy refused to authorize and permit a second rest break for employees working shifts longer than six, but shorter than eight, hours.”
As for general timing of rest breaks, the Court held that the only requirement for timing of rest breaks is that they be authorized and permitted to be taken as close to the middle of a four hour work period as is practicable. The Court rejected a strict rule that a rest break occur before a meal break.
Based on the Court’s rulings on meal and rest break requirements, California employers will want to review their policies and practices to ensure compliance, with particular attention to ensuring rest break policy language comports with the Court’s interpretation of the requirements.