The California Supreme Court released its much anticipated decision regarding the requirements for meal and rest breaks for non-exempt employees. The decision in Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court, No. D049331 (April 12, 2012) provides employers some needed clarity for a number of employment issues regarding the scope and timing of meal and rest breaks.
Brinker was a class action suit brought by restaurant employees who claimed they were illegally denied rest and meal periods. Among the key issues before the Supreme Court were:
- What is an employer’s obligation to “provide” meal periods?
- Is an employer required to ensure its employee actually takes meal periods?
- During what hours of the workday must a meal period be provided?
- Is an employer required to provide a meal period every five hours worked (“rolling-five”(1))?
- During what hours of the workday must a rest period be provided?
The Supreme Court provided the following rulings regarding meal and rest periods:
A. Employer’s Duty to Provide Meal Periods
In order to “provide” a meal period, an employer must relieve the employee of all duties for an uninterrupted 30-minute period. The employee must be at liberty to use the period for whatever purpose she wishes.
Importantly, an employer is not required to ensure the employee actually takes the break. If an employer relieves the employee of all duties, it will not be held liable for penalties if the employee chooses to work. In other words, an employer is not required to monitor its employee to ensure she does not work during the meal period. However, the employer is responsible for payment of the employee’s regular (or overtime) wage for the time worked, and the employee does not have a right to work through the meal period. Employers can still require that an unpaid meal period be taken in order to avoid overtime liability.
A first meal period must start no later than the completion of five hours of work and a second meal period must start no later than completion of ten hours of work. If an employee takes their first meal break after only two hours worked, there is no requirement to provide a second meal break until the employee has worked ten hours.
B. Employer’s Duty to Provide Rest Periods
An employer must make a good faith effort to furnish rest breaks in the middle of the work period, but may deviate from this schedule based on practical constraints. There does not need to be any specific order in taking meal and rest periods. The first meal period can occur before the first rest period. However, for an eight hour shift, “as a general matter,” one rest break should fall on either side of the meal period.
To calculate the amount of rest time that must be provided in a given workday, the employer should take the number of work hours divided by four (rounded down if the fractional part is half or less than half and up if it is more) and multiply by ten minutes:
|Required Break Time
|Less than 3.5 hours
|3.5 hours to 6 hours
|More than 6 hours to 10 hours
|More than 10 hours to 14 hours
Important Steps for Employers
Now that the California Supreme Court has clarified some formerly disputed meal and rest periods issues, it is important for employers to confirm their existing policies and practices comply with the Court’s ruling. Employers should also provide training to their managers and supervisors to ensure proper break polices are implemented with the non-exempt employees to ensure their meal and rest period policies are followed.