After years of employer uncertainty, the California Supreme Court has finally resolved what employers must do to provide meal and rest breaks. They must make sure employees are relieved of all duties during the breaks. However, they do not have to ensure that no work is performed during breaks. What employees do with their break time is up to them.
Recent case: A group of hourly restaurant workers sued, claiming violations of California’s wage-and-hour laws. In California, employees must have a meal break at least every five hours of a shift; employers face a penalty for each missed break.
The workers insisted that employers must not only provide the breaks, but must also actively prevent employees from working during their breaks.
The California Supreme Court said employers must provide the meal breaks by relieving employees of all duties, relinquishing control over their activities and permitting them a reasonable opportunity to take an uninterrupted 30-minute break. Employers are also obligated not to impede or discourage employees from taking meal breaks.
However, that’s where the employer’s obligation ends. Employers do not have to police meal breaks to ensure that employees perform no work.
The court considered one other issue, that of meal timing. It concluded that employers must provide the first meal break no later than the end of the fifth hour of work, and a second break no later than the end of an employee’s 10th hour of work. It said employees can waive the second break. (Brinker Restaurant Corp., v. Hohnbaum, et al., No. S166350, Supreme Court of California, 2012)
Final note: This is a good time to review your meal break policies to make sure they meet the obligations the California Supreme Court set out. You may have to juggle some schedules to ensure that employees truly are relieved of duties and are free to leave the premises if they wish.
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