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California Supreme Court Provides Guidance to Employers in Brinker Decision

By: Jessica Farley

On April 12, 2012, the California Supreme Court issued its long-awaited decision in Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court, No. S166350. The opinion resolves years of uncertainty regarding the number and frequency of meal periods and rest breaks that an employer must provide to non-exempt employees.

Meal Periods

Favorable to employers, the Court held that employers' duties are limited to providing a 30-minute meal period to employees for every 5 hours of work. An employer satisfies its obligations under Labor Code section 512(a) and Wage Order No. 5 when it: (1) "relieves its employees of all duty," (2) "relinquishes control over their activities," (3) "permits them a reasonable opportunity to take an uninterrupted 30-minute break," and (4) "does not impede or discourage them from doing so." The Court held that an employer is not required to "police meal breaks and ensure no work thereafter is performed." Consequently, an employer meeting these requirements will not be held liable should a relieved employee choose to work during a meal break. (Slip. Op. 36-37.)

Rest Breaks

The Court interpreted IWC Wage Order No. 5 to require employers to allow 10 minutes of rest for shifts between 3.5 and 6 hours in length, 20 minutes for shifts that are more than 6 hours and up to 10 hours, and 30 minutes for shifts that are more than 10 hours and up to 14 hours. (Slip Op. 20.) Furthermore, employers are not required to provide their employees with a rest break before a meal period. (Slip Op. 22.)

Implications

Underlying the meal period and rest break questions was the issue of whether such claims may be determined on a class basis. The Court's reasoning reaffirms the importance of established, well-circulated employer policies and procedures that are compliant with wage and hour laws and regulations. For instance, the Court declined certification to off-the-clock claims because Brinker had an express policy that complied with California law and prohibited off-the-clock work. Likewise, Brinker suggests that employers can protect themselves from claims that they are violating meal period regulations with good record-keeping. The Court noted that when employees are clocked out, there is a presumption they are doing no work, which "the putative class members have the burden to rebut." (Slip Op. 52.)