Under California law, employers are required to make available to nonexempt employees meal and rest breaks. Employers that fail to do so must pay certain premium wages. After years of litigation over these seemingly simple requirements, the California Supreme Court on April 12, 2012, issued its long-awaited opinion in Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court. The Court provided welcome guidance to the bench and bar regarding class certification law and meal and rest period requirements.

Background

Several nonexempt restaurant employees filed a class action lawsuit against their employer, Brinker Restaurant Corporation. The employees alleged that Brinker failed to provide them with lawful meal and rest breaks or premium pay in lieu of breaks. During class certification proceedings, the lower courts became entangled in a legal dispute over the extent of employers’ obligations to provide meal and rest breaks under California laws and Wage Orders. The California Supreme Court “granted review to resolve uncertainty in the handling of wage and hour class certification motions.” The Supreme Court also substantively addressed the appropriate way to administer meal and rest breaks.”

Although the Court addressed the requirements in Wage Order No. 5, which applies to restaurants, Wage Order Nos. 1, 4, and 7 contain the same requirements, as do some of the other Wage Orders. Employers must know what Wage Order applies to their industry or occupation so they can determine whether Brinker applies to them.

Class Certification Made Easier

The Supreme Court expanded trial courts’ discretion to grant class certification. In the context of wage-hour claims, the trial court may find that common issues of law or fact make a class action advantageous, without deciding if the class claims are legally meritorious. The Court held that a “trial court does not abuse its discretion if it certifies (or denies certification of) a class without deciding one or more issues affecting the nature of a given element if resolution of such issues would not affect the ultimate certification decision.” In other words, a class action may proceed where there is a dispute as to exactly what the plaintiffs must ultimately prove to prevail in their case, as long as a court can still resolve whether common issues of law and fact predominate (and whether other requirements for class certification are met).

Amount of Time for Rest Breaks

Subdivision 12(A) of Wage Order No. 5 (which applies to restaurants) states: “Every employer shall authorize and permit all employees to take rest periods, which insofar as practicable shall be in the middle of each work period. The authorized rest period time shall be based on the total hours worked daily at the rate of ten (10) minutes net rest time per four (4) hours or major fraction thereof. However, a rest period need not be authorized for employees whose total daily work time is less than three and one-half (3 1/2) hours.” Interpreting subdivision 12(A), the Court concluded that “[e]mployees are entitled to 10 minutes’ rest for shifts from three and one-half hours to six hours in length, 20 minutes for shifts of more than six hours up to 10 hours, 30 minutes for shifts of more than 10 hours up to 14 hours, and so on.”

Timing of Rest Breaks

Regarding the timing of rest breaks, the Supreme Court held that employers are “subject to a duty to make a good faith effort to authorize and permit rest breaks in the middle of each work period, but may deviate from that preferred course where practical considerations render it infeasible.” However, “as a general matter, one rest break should fall on either side of the meal break” for an employee working an eight-hour shift – though “shorter or longer shifts and other factors . . . may alter this general rule.”

“Providing” Meal Periods

Under subdivision 11(A) of Wage Order No. 5, in general, “[n]o employer shall employ any person for a work period of more than five (5) hours without a meal period of not less than 30 minutes.” Under section 512 of the Labor Code, an employer generally “must provid[e] [an] employee with a meal period of not less than 30 minutes” for workdays lasting more than five hours, and provide two meal periods for workdays in excess of 10 hours.

In addressing “what it means for an employer to provide a nonexempt employee a meal period,” the Supreme Court held that “an employer must relieve the employee of all duty for the designated period, but need not ensure that the employee does no work.” The Court reasoned that under Wage Order No. 5, it is an employer’s obligation to provide “an uninterrupted 30-minute period during which the employee is relieved of all duty.”

The Court also examined the section 512’s legislative history and concluded that – consistent with Wage Order No. 5 – the legislature intended for employees to be provided 30-minute, duty-free meal periods. However, the Court rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that Brinker was required to ensure that employees do not work during meal periods because it “lack[ed] any textual basis in the wage order or statute.”

In sum, an employer “satisfies its obligation” to provide a 30-minute, duty-free meal break “if it relieves its employees of all duty, permits them a reasonable opportunity to take an uninterrupted 30-minute break, and does not impede or discourage them from doing so.” Further, an “employer is not obligated to police meal breaks and ensure no work thereafter is performed.” As long as an employer meets its obligations, it will not be liable for premium pay – though it could be liable for straight pay.

Timing of Meal Period

Based on the language and history of Wage Order No. 5 and section 512, the Supreme Court held that “absent waiver, section 512 requires a first meal period no later than the end of an employee’s fifth hour of work, and a second meal period no later than the end of the employee’s 10th hour of work.” The Court refused to hold that a meal period must occur every five hours, or that a meal period must start at a particular time within the windows described above.

What Does Brinker Mean for Employers?

The Court provided welcome, clear guidance to employers with respect to the appropriate handling of meal and rest breaks. However, to avoid the Court’s new twist on class action rules, employers should ensure their policies are detailed and unambiguous. Employers should train managers to enforce meal and rest breaks in a manner that comports with these policies.

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