State Supreme Court Rules Employers Must Provide Meal Breaks, But You Must Take Them

Huckleberry's fried egg sandwich
Huckleberry's fried egg sandwich

If you're an hourly employee who works more than five hours a day, you are entitled to a 30-minute lunch break -- but, as the California Supreme Court just ruled, it's up to you to make sure you exercise your legal right to do so.

The state Supreme Court's unanimous decision is a culmination of nine long years of litigation against defendant Brinker International, which owns and operates several major restaurant chains, including Chili's. The plaintiffs were or are hourly employees at various Brinker restaurants; they filed suit almost a decade ago, alleging that the company violated a number of California labor laws, including a failure to ensure employees stopped working during their mealtime breaks. Brinker, however, responded that its legal obligation was only to make such breaks available to employees. In a ruling issued yesterday, the California Supreme Court sided with Brinker.

According to the Associated Press, the plaintiffs "argued that abuses are routine and widespread when companies aren't required to issue direct orders to take the breaks. They claimed employers take advantage of workers who don't want to leave colleagues during busy times." In its 54-page opinion, the court rejected the argument, concluding that an employer is not required to "police meal breaks." Rather, the employer's obligations are met so long as "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."

If an employee chooses to work through the break period -- as in the above scenario, when you don't want to leave a co-worker hanging during a particularly busy spell -- the court footnoted that the employee would be entitled to regular pay so long as the employer knows, or reasonably should know, that the employee is waiving the meal period to work instead.

And while nine years is a long time to litigate any case, this is just the end of the beginning. The court sent the suit back to the lower court to determine whether the plaintiffs' claims could be certified as a class action in light of its interpretation of the law. A separate issue on whether the employees received their proper rest breaks also was permitted to continue as a class action.


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