Supreme Court Issues Major Meal and Rest Period Ruling: Brinker v. Superior Court

The California Supreme Court recently ruled on one of the most hotly anticipated California Supreme Court rulings in recent employment law history.  On April 12, 2012, the Court issued its decision in Brinker v. Superior Court, a case that had the potential to redefine employment law cases, particularly class actions, based on meal periods and rest breaks.  While defense counsel has touted the decision as a “victory for employers”, plaintiffs counsel have also applauded the detailed guidance that the Court offered in its opinion, making it clearer to determine when a violation of law has occurred. 

The Brinker decision has been touted by employers as establishing that although employers must provide certain specified meal periods and rest breaks, employers are not required to ensure employees do not work through those breaks.  In other words, the employer does not have to police the workplace to make sure employees are eating their lunch after being allowed to do so.  However, the Court did state the employer has to “relieve the employees of duty and “relinquish control over their activities”.  Moreover, the employer “must not undermine a formal policy of providing meal breaks by pressuring employees to perform their duties in ways that omit breaks.”

Arguably one of the biggest disputes concerning the issue of meal periods prior to the Brinker ruling related to the calculation of the “five hour rule”.  The rule refers to Labor Code section 512, which states that employers “may not employ an employee for a work period of more than five hours per day without providing the employee with a meal period of not less than 30 minutes…”  Plaintiffs have long contended that the five hours was calculated on a “rolling” basis—meaning an employee who took a thirty minute meal period within the first five hours of work started the five hour clock rolling again, potentially entitling the employee to two thirty minute meal periods within a single 8 ½ hour shift.  The Court clarified this dispute by laying out bright-line guidelines for meal periods:

  • A thirty minute meal period must be provided by the end of the employee’s fifth hour of work;
  • If the employee works more than ten hours, a second thirty minute meal period must be provided by the end of the employee’s tenth hour of work;
  • The first thirty minute meal period may be waived by mutual consent of the employer and employee, but only if the employee does not work more than six hours on that day; and
  • The second thirty minute meal period may be waived by mutual consent of the employer and employee, but only if the first period was not waived and the employee does not work more than twelve hours on that day.

Similarly, prior to Brinker there had been confusion over how to calculate the ten minute paid rest breaks that employers are required to give employees.  Again, the Supreme Court provided bright-line guidance:

  • Employees who work less than three and one-half hours are not entitled to a break;
  • Employees who work between three and one-half and six hours are entitled to ten minutes of break time;
  • Employees who work between six and ten hours are entitled to twenty minutes of break time;
  • Employees who work between ten and fourteen hours are entitled to thirty minutes of break time, and so on.

These bright-line rules allow employers to craft detailed and lawful meal period and rest break policies, which in turn should help insulate employers from exposure to these types of claims by employees.  However, employers must also remember that although they are not required to ensure that employees do not work during these break and rest periods, employers must not do anything that actually, or seemingly, impedes the employees’ ability to take these uninterrupted break and rest periods.  Managers or supervisors should be formally instructed not to force or coerce employees to work through meal periods.  In other words, paying “lip-service” to the policies is bound to result in a violation of the law. 

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