California’s Brinker Case is Finally Decided
By now you may have heard that the California Supreme Court finally decided the Brinker case, ruling in favor of employers. It concluded that an employer’s obligation is to relieve its employees of all duty, with the employee thereafter at liberty to use their rest or meal period for whatever purpose he or she desires. The employer need not ensure that no work is done. Thankfully for California employers the court ruled that you can treat employees like the adults they are supposed to be! Here’s the bottom line to a decision that took much too long to come to such a commonsense conclusion:
- You have to offer rest and meal breaks.
- It’s up to employees to take them.
- Your managers can’t dissuade employees from taking their breaks.
- If they can’t take the break, you pay a one-hour penalty.
Much of the case had to do with the class action certification process, which is only of interest to the lawyers. Of course, if it’s to be a class action, the issue is whether common or individual questions predominate and that question often depends on a resolution of issues closely tied to the merits. Here are some quotes from the Brinker decision that apply to rest and meal period:
- “To earn the first ten-minute break, one must be scheduled for a work shift of at least three and one-half hours, while to earn the next ten minutes, one must be scheduled to work four hours plus a major fraction to earn the next ten, eight hours plus a major fraction, and so on.” So, employees are entitled to ten-minute rests for shifts from 3.5-6 hours in length, 20 minutes for shifts of 6 hours up to 10 hours, and 30 minutes for shifts of 10 hours up to 14 hours, and so on.
- “As a general matter, one rest break should fall on either side of the meal break.”
- “The meal period requirement is satisfied if the employee: 1) has at least 30 minutes uninterrupted, 2) is free to leave the premises, and 3) is relieved of all duty for the entire period. Again, the employee must be relieved of any duty or employer control and are free to come and go as they please. It is not the employer’s obligation to ensure that no work is being done.
- “When someone is employed for 5 hours, an employer is put to a choice: 1) it must afford an off-duty meal period; 2) consent to a mutually-agreed upon waiver if one-hour or less will end the shift; or 3) obtain written agreement to an on-duty meal period if circumstances permit. Failure to do one of these will render the employer liable for premium pay. If work does continue, the employer will not be liable for premium paid. At most, it will be liable for straight pay, and then only when it ‘knew or reasonably should have known’ that the worker was working through the authorized meal period.”
- “Proof of an employee’s working through a meal period will not alone subject the employer to liability of premium pay. Employees cannot manipulate the flexibility granted them by employers to use their breaks as they see fit to generate such liability. On the other hand, an employer may not undermine a formal policy providing meal breaks by pressuring employees to perform their duties in ways that omit breaks. For example, common scheduling policies that make taking breaks extremely difficult or creating incentives to forgo or otherwise skipping breaks. “
- “The first meal period must start after no more than five hours. A second meal period is only required after ten hours of work.”
In the case, the plaintiff also contended that Brinker required employees to perform work while clocked out and that meal break records were altered to conceal time working during those periods.
Additional notes: Remember that all meal periods are required to be recorded. Rest periods are not so required. Think about this twist: It can be argued that those employees who worked through their meal breaks and thereby out-produced their peers, are doing so voluntarily with a desire to be promoted. If in fact they are promoted ahead of their peers, their peers can then argue that you basically discouraged them from taking meal breaks and violated the law.