Employment Law Alert: California Supreme Court Limits Employers’ Obligation to Provide Meal Periods and Rest Breaks

On April 12, 2012, the California Supreme Court held in Brinker that an employer is obligated to relieve its employee of all duties during a meal period or rest break, with the employee at liberty to use that break or period for whatever purpose the employee desires. The employer, however, has no obligation to ensure that the employee does no work.

Brinker was the owner and operator of several restaurants. Plaintiff Hohnbaum filed a putative class action lawsuit on behalf of the cooks, stewards, buspersons, wait staff, host staff, and other hourly employees who staffed the Brinker restaurants. The allegations against Brinker were that it provided fewer than the required number of meal periods and rest breaks, it improperly engaged in the practice of “early lunching” which caused employees to work 7-8 hours without a meal period, and it required employees to work when they were off the clock for meal periods or rest breaks.

The most contentious issue raised in the litigation was whether the employer had an affirmative duty to make sure employees actually stop working during meal periods and rest breaks. The California Supreme Court concluded employers are only obligated to relieve the employee of his or her duties, which includes relinquishing control over their activities and permitting them a reasonable opportunity to take an uninterrupted 30-minute break. So long as the employer does not impede or discourage the employee from taking his or her break, the employer has no further obligation to make sure the employee actually stops working during that break.

Brinker is a watershed decision insofar as it resolves a long-standing and hotly disputed question of the employer’s obligations under Labor Code section 512, subdivision (a) and Wage Order No. 5

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April 13, 2012