Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Brinker Meal Period Decision

California Supreme Court
The California Supreme Court has handed down its long anticipated ruling in Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court, Case No. S166350. Applying rules of construction and common sense, the Court ruled that employers need not force their employees to take a meal break:

"An employer's duty with respect to meal breaks under both [Labor Code] section 512, subdivision (a) and Wage Order No. 5 is an obligation to provide a meal period to its employees. The employer satisfies this obligation 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.  What will suffice may vary from industry to industry ... On the other hand, the employer is not obligated to police meal breaks and ensure no work thereafter is performed.  Bona fide relief from duty and the relinquishing of control satisfies the employer's obligations, and work by a relieved employee during a meal break does not thereby place the employer in violation of its obligations and create liability for premium pay." The law requires a first meal period no later than the end of an employee's fifth hour of work, and a second meal period no later than the end of an employee's 10th hour of work.

The Court also put to rest any question there may have been about the separate rest period entitlement: "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."

What does the decision mean for employers?

Because the Supreme Court has foreclosed the argument that the lack of a record of a meal period within the first five hours of employment automatically makes the employer liable for a meal period violation, the decision should limit the circumstances in which class action certification is appropriate for such claims. In the absence of an employer policy that violates the meal period, each individual employee would have to prove that he or she was prevented from taking a meal break. But, in the case before it, the Court did not rule out a class action, leaving it to the Superior Court to determine, in light of the conclusions reached in the decision, whether common issues predominated over individual ones.

Further, the Supreme Court's decision does not read the meal period requirement out of California law. Employers must still ensure that all their non-exempt employees are completely relieved of duty for 30 minutes by the end of the first five hours of work.

What should employers do?

Now that the Supreme Court has conclusively determined the extent of the employer's obligation with respect to meal periods, employers should review their policies and practices to make sure that they are in compliance.

1. Employers should make sure that all supervisors and managers are informed of the legal requirement recited in the Supreme Court's opinion, and that any violations will result in discipline.

2. Employers should review their employee handbooks to make sure that it informs employees of their right to 30 duty free minutes by the end of their fifth hour of work. The acknowledgment of receipt of the handbook should contain a separate initialed acknowledgment of the employer's policy to provide meal periods.

3. Employers should make sure that their timekeeping systems accurately record meal periods. Section 7 of the California wage orders requires employers to maintain accurate records of meal periods.

4. Employers should consider encouraging employees to take their meals away from the work location. This will avoid claims that an employee was not relieved of all duty because someone asked a work-related question, or requested performance of a work duty.

5. Employers should self-assess the one-hour of premium pay imposed by California Labor Code section 226.7, if they need an employee or group of employees to work without a meal period. Although the Labor Code and wage orders permit employees to give written waivers "when the nature of the work prevents an employee from being relieved of all duty," such waivers are revocable at the employee's option and may be subject to challenge for having been coerced.

No comments: