California Court: Employers Aren’t Liable If Workers Don’t Take Breaks

Chalk this up as another one of those trend-setting legal rulings that come out of California and then ripple across the country.

The California Supreme Court ruled Thursday that although employers “must make it possible for workers to take scheduled breaks,” they “cannot be held liable if employees decide to work instead of rest,” according to a report in the Los Angeles Times.

We conclude an employer’s obligation is to relieve its employee of all duty, with the employee thereafter at liberty to use the meal period for whatever purpose he or she desires,” Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar wrote in the unanimous decision, “ but the employer need not ensure that no work is done.”

Clarifying “ambiguous state laws”

The ruling had been long-awaited, Nation’s Restaurant News said, in order to “clarify what many see as ambiguous state laws regarding meal and rest breaks.”

For more than a decade, California employers have been left to guess what their legal obligation is,” under the state’s meal- and rest-break regulations, said attorney Julie Dunne of Littler Mendelson in San Diego.

Restaurant companies have been sued often, spending millions on legal battles and settlements, she noted. “This case is anticipated to finally offer some clarity … and it should bring a significant reduction in the lawsuits.”

The unanimous decision by California’s highest court came in an eight-year legal battle against Brinker International, which operates a chain of restaurants that includes such popular eating spots as Chili’s and Maggiano’s Little Italy, the San Jose Mercury News said. “The lawsuit, which could affect thousands of Brinker waiters, waitresses, bartenders and cooks across California, claimed the chain’s restaurants regularly failed to assure employees got their breaks and thus violated California labor laws.”

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Courts inundated with lawsuits

The LA Times noted that the courts have been inundated with lawsuits over breaks for workers, and that “tens of thousands of California workers who have sued major employers contend that companies evade state labor law requirements by making it impossible for workers to take scheduled breaks. Employers have countered that they should not be forced to police their workers as long as breaks are scheduled and made available.”

The Supreme Court handed down a dose of common sense today by ruling that employers should not and cannot be required to be the ‘meal police,’ ” said employment lawyer Wendy Lane.

Michelle Lee Flores, another employment lawyer, called the ruling “a relief.” The labor code never intended that “California employers should behave like parents to petulant schoolchildren,” Flores said.

Instead of ensuring that workers take their meal breaks, employers must simply provide uninterrupted, 30-minute, duty-free times in which the worker can come and go as he or she pleases, the court said.

Workers are entitled to 10-minute rest breaks for shifts from 3½ hours to 6 hours in length and another 10 minutes of rest for shifts that run six to 10 hours.”

Although this ruling only impacts businesses in California, it’s likely that other states and other courts will take up the issue and may use the California Supreme Court ruling as a precedent to base similar arguments on, especially since the court ruled that as long as employers have a formal system in place for breaks and meals, it is up to the employee, not the employer, to make sure they take them. As the Associated Press story noted:

The courts are making it clear that you have to create a system and a procedure that fully allows employees an opportunity to take breaks and meal periods, and if they do that they do not have to be Big Brother and individually monitor each employee to ensure that they’ve taken every bit of their breaks,” said Steve Hirschfeld, founder and CEO of the Employment Law Alliance, an employer-side legal trade group…

State law has mandated meal and rest breaks for decades. But in 2001, California became one of only a few states that impose a monetary penalty for employers who violate these laws, requiring employers to pay one hour of wages for a missed half-hour meal break. There is no federal law requiring employers to provide such breaks.”

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of TLNT.com. A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at johnhollon@ere.net, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.

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