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California Supreme Court rules on handling meal and rest periods

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in Compensation and Benefits,Employment Law,Human Resources

THE LAW: The California Labor Code obligates employers to provide meal and rest periods to nonexempt employees during the workday. The code prohibits employers from requiring employees “to work during any meal or rest period mandated by an applicable order of the Industrial Welfare Commission.”

Wage Order No. 5 subdivision 12 prescribes rest periods, while ­subdivision 11 (as well as section 512 of the Labor Code) prescribes meal periods. Employers that violate those requirements must pay premium wages.

WHAT’S NEW: In April, the Cali­­for­­nia Supreme Court finally issued its opinion in Brinker v. Superior Court (S166350, Supreme Court of California, 2012). In a major victory for California employers, the court issued clear rules on how and when employee meal and rest periods must be provided.

In addition, the justices provided additional important comments on the standards trial courts should apply when considering motions for class certification in cases generally.

In a nutshell, the California Supreme Court ruled that:

•    The first meal period must only be “provided” and must begin before the end of the fifth hour of work. A second meal period must be “provided” before the end of 10 hours of work. Meal periods are not required every five hours as the plaintiffs contended.

•    Rest periods must be “­permitted” for every four hours of work or major fraction of four hours, which the court determined to be more than two hours. This means that for any employee working 3½ hours or more in a workday, the following number of 10-minute rest breaks must be provided:

  • 3½ hours to six hours: One
  • Between six hours and 10 hours: Two
  • Between 10 hours and 14 hours: Three

The court also ruled that ­employers are not required to provide a rest period before the first meal period, as had been claimed by the plaintiffs.

HOW TO COMPLY: The key takeaway for employers regarding meal breaks: “An employer’s duty with respect to meal breaks under both section 512, subdivision (a) and Wage Order No. 5 is an obligation to provide a meal period to its employees. The employer satisfies this obligation if it relieves its employees of all duty, relinquishes control over their activities and permits them a reasonable opportunity to take an uninterrupted 30-minute break, and does not impede or discourage them from doing so.”

  • Employers should immediately review their policies to make certain they provide the following:Employees are assured they are fully entitled to take an unpaid and uninterrupted 30-minute meal period before the end of the fifth hour of work each day. During meal breaks, they are free to use the time for whatever purpose they desire, including leaving the workplace.
  • Employees are assured they are fully entitled to take a second unpaid and uninterrupted 30-minute meal period after 10 hours of work each day, subject to the same conditions.
  • Employees must accurately record the time they begin and end each meal period each day.
  • If an employee finds that, due to work requirements, he or she has not been able to take one or more required daily meal periods, then the employee must report it on his or her time record. The employee will be paid for the time worked, and one hour of premium pay for that day.
  • Employees who work 3½ hours or more in any workday are authorized and permitted to take 10-minute paid rest breaks as outlined above.
  • If an employee finds that, due to work requirements, he or she has not been able to take one or more required rest breaks, then the employee must report it on his or her time record. The employee will be paid one hour of premium pay for that day.

There is more to the decision

In addition to finally clarifying Cali­­fornia’s meal and rest period law, the California Supreme Court ruled on general class-action certification requirements.

It found that, under the circumstances presented in this case, the plaintiffs’ claims of off-the-clock work were not appropriate for class certification.

As a result, plaintiffs will have to pursue those claims individually.

Practical impact

This decision is a long-awaited victory for California employers. Brinker provides important clarification on employers’ obligations to provide meal and rest breaks for employees.

While a victory, it also demonstrates the importance of meticulous record-keeping, not only of hours worked, but a thorough documentation of employee breaks. Still, em­­ployers, especially those with large workforces or with off-site employees, can take solace in the fact that they now need only make available meal and rest periods and not ensure that they are taken.

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