New Standard for Meal/Rest Periods:
On April 12, 2012, the California Supreme Court issued its ruling on Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. The Superior Court of San Diego County. This case ultimately stemmed from a class action suit in which the plaintiff class consisted of current or former cooks, stewards, buspersons, waiting staff, and host staff who worked in restaurants owned and operated by Brinker Restaurant Corp (“Brinker”). The plaintiffs brought the class action in response to Brinker’s alleged failure to provide its employees with proper meal periods, rest breaks, or premium wages for work performed during break periods. The case came before the California Supreme Court so that it could review the question of class certification. In its analysis of the class certification issues, the Court spelled out the meaning of employment regulations with regards to the following: (1) the rules for providing rest breaks, (2) the employer’s duty to provide a meal period, and (3) the rules governing the frequency of meal periods. This blog summarizes the rules established in the Court’s analysis of these issues.
Rules for Providing Rest Breaks
The court first discussed the issue of how many rest periods an employee is entitled to during any particular shift. It determined that the governing law for this issue was Wage Order No. 5, subdivision 12. Under Wage Order No. 5, the Court spelled out that an employee is entitled to one 10 minute break for a shift of 3.5-6 hours in duration; two 10 minute breaks (or a total of 20 minutes of break time) for a shift from 6-10 hours in duration; and three 10 minute breaks (30 minutes total) for a shift 10 hours or longer. Brinker, S166350 at page 20. This rule needed clarification because the Appeals Court below had applied the rule incorrectly due to a misinterpretation of the legislation’s use of the phrase “major fraction thereof.” However, this Court clarified the rule laid out above, reasoning that the Appellate Court’s application of the rule was irreconcilable with the plain language of the statute.
Employer’s Duty to Provide a Meal Period
With regards to employer provision of a meal period, the issue was whether the employer must ensure that the employee is taking advantage of their meal break or if the employer must merely provide the opportunity for an uninterrupted break. To answer this question, the Court first referred to the historical governing regulation, Wage Order No. 5, subdivision 11(A), which stated that an employer must provide a “duty free” meal period. It then checked this principal against section 512, which was passed in 1999 (and cited as Stats. 1999, ch. 134, § 6, p. 1823) to determine if the historical principals were consistent with the most recent legislation. After analyzing both pieces of legislation, the Court determined both pieces of legislation were consistent with one another. It further held that under the two statutes, an employer’s duty to provide a meal period are as follows: (1) to relieve the employee of all duties for the meal period, (2) relinquish control over the employees activities, and (3) provide a reasonable opportunity for an uninterrupted 30 minute meal period. Brinker, page 36. The employer need not ensure that work is not performed during the period, and no liability attaches if the employee works during the period unless the employer coerces or encourages the employee to do so. [Although the legal standard changed some for imposing liability, the burden remains on the employer and employers should still be cautious about employees working during any such break.]
Rules Governing the Frequency of the Meal Periods
After determining what the employer’s duty was with regard to the provision of a meal period, the Court then turned to how often the employer must provide meal periods. In order to parse out a definitive rule for how an employer must provide meal periods, the Court again turned to section 512(a) to spell out a definitive rule for how often an employer must provide a meal period. The court determined that for workers working a shift longer than 6 hours, a meal period must be provided before the start of the 6th hour of work at the latest; for shifts longer than 10 hours, a second meal period must be provided before the start of the 11th hour of work. Brinker, page 36-37. If the shift is only 6 hours in length, the meal period may be waived in writing by employee; the same is true of the second meal period (but only the second meal period) for 12 hour shifts. Brinker, page 37. It is assumed that for shifts less than 5 hours, no meal period need be provided because the shift would conclude prior to the time an employer would be required to provide a meal period.
The full text of the California Supreme Court’s Ruling is available in Word Format at http://www.courtinfo.ca.gov/opinions/documents/S166350.DOC and in Acrobat at http://www.courtinfo.ca.gov/opinions/documents/S166350.PDF.Tweet