Employee Meal and Rest Breaks: Are They Mandatory?

To eat or not to eat?  That is the question in a case entitled Brinker Restaurant v. Superior Court is scheduled to go before the California Supreme Court on November 8, 2011.  The Court’s decision will help provide some clarity to an issue that has resulted in hundreds of class action lawsuits in California: whether employers must ensure that their employees actually take their meal and rest periods or merely make them available.

Under California law, nonexempt employees are entitled to uninterrupted, off-duty meal periods of at least 30 minutes for every five hours worked.  Employers are required to compensate employees for on-duty meal periods.  In addition, California law assesses employers a penalty equal to one hour of pay at the employee’s regular rate for every day there is a meal period violation.

The lower court in the Brinker case held that California law requires employers only to make meal periods available.  However, the California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement takes the position that employers have “an affirmative obligation to ensure the workers are actually relieved of all duty” during meal breaks; in other words, they must take the break whether they want to or not.

The Supreme Court’s decision in Brinker should resolve this dispute by providing a firm rule on the matter. The Court generally issues decisions within 90 days, so if the matter goes ahead as scheduled, a decision should be announced in February of 2012.

Of course, the law of unintended consequences being what it is, even if the Court comes down in favor of requiring employees to take a meal break, one can foresee a wave of class actions brought by employees who became obese after downing Filet-O-Fish sandwiches during their forced lunches.



Author: Seth Heyman
Seth D. Heyman is a California attorney with extensive experience in advertising and marketing law, corporate law, contracts, governmental regulations, international business, and Internet law. He has counseled numerous successful companies, both public and private, and was responsible for regulatory compliance, contract management, corporate governance, and HR best practices for multiple organizations in many diverse industries, including marketing, telecommunications, energy, and technology development. He offers insight and guidance on federal and state direct mail, TV, radio, telemarketing, and Internet marketing laws, as well as online promotions, Internet privacy, data protection regulations, and similar matters.

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