California Ruling Regarding Employee Meal Breaks

The California Supreme Court issued a ruling in April 2012 regarding an employer’s obligation to “provide” its employees with meal breaks. The decision (Brinker Restaurant Corp. vs. Superior Court) requires employers only “provide” a meal period rather than “ensure” that employees take a meal period, as previously enforced. The Brinker decision does not change most compliance standards associated with meal periods, only technically, relieves employers from paying meal penalties. Under Brinker, an employer meal period is “provided” when:
  1. Employer relieves the employee of all duties.
  2. Employer ceases control over the employee’s activities during this time.
  3. Employer provides an uninterrupted 30-minute break.
  4. Employer does not impede or discourage an employee from taking a 30-minute break

Under these standards, employers are not forced to rigidly supervise that meal breaks occur because the employee has been provided ample opportunity to take a break and freely do as desired during this time, including taking in a meal. To avoid legal consequences, employers may choose to continue enforcing meal periods, since late or short (less than 30 minutes) meal periods captured on a timecard may be difficult to defend:

  • Employers are required to pay for work “suffered and permitted” [a concept defined by the Fair Labor and Standards Act (FLSA)]. This means work performed for benefit of the company, work the employer knows or has reason to know is being performed and/or work that could have been prevented.
  • Short meal periods might not qualify as demonstrating “good faith” under the FLSA.

Under the new standard, employees are entitled to rest breaks as follows:

 

Hours Worked

Rest Periods

0 to less than  3.5 hours

None

3.5 up to 6 hours

1

More than 6 up to 10 hours

2

More than 10 up to 14 hours

3

More than 14 up to 18 hours

4

 

Using the above guidelines and ensuring that employees show the appropriate number of full 30-minute breaks on their time card will not only keep you compliant with this standard, but it will help set a tone in your organization that you understand the law and are doing your best to ensure your compliance. This helps the good employees feel appreciated and respected and keeps the bad apple employee’s from viewing you as a target.

About the Author

Sonya Kemp is an HR Specialist. Deeply skilled in assessing needs, she provides and implements practical solutions into our client's businesses. She offers a fresh approach to Human Resources Consulting that is practical and tailored to your needs. As an adjunct professor at Loyola Marymount University, she teaches upper-division HR courses to aspiring HR professionals.

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