Employers Not Obligated to Enforce Lunch Breaks in California

The California Supreme Court ruled on April 12, 2012 that employers are not obligated to ensure that workers take legally mandated lunch breaks.  The decision was unanimous and was written by Associate Justice Kathryn Werdegar.  The nine year old case was filed by Dallas based Brinker International (parent company of Chili’s and other eateries) because restaurant workers complained that they missed breaks, in violation of California labor law.

The California Supreme Court has sided with businesses in its determination that requiring companies to ensure breaks are taken is unmanageable.  The decision as to how to spend offered break time should be left to the employees.  Justice Werdegar wrote, “The employer is not obligated to police meal breaks and ensure no work thereafter is performed.”  Thus, employers must provide workers with a 30-minute meal break, but it is the employees’ choice what to do with that time.  If they chose to work during their meal period, that is their decision.

State law has mandated meal and rest breaks for a long while now.  However, in 2001, California began imposing monetary penalties for employers who violated meal and rest break laws.  The penalty required employers to pay one hour of wages for each missed half-hour meal break.  California is one of the few states that imposes monetary penalties.  There are no federal laws requiring employers to provide such breaks.

This case no doubt affects thousands of business and millions of workers in California.

Permanent link to this article: http://betweenthenumbers.net/2012/04/employers-not-obligated-to-enforce-lunch-breaks-in-california/

1 comment

  1. The workers most likely to be affected by this ruling are personal service industries that require an extended session with a customer.

    So for example my wife works for H&R Block. Now a typical face-to-face tax return takes an hour, but an exceptionally chatty customer or learning that somebody has a new Schedule C business can easily add another half or whole hour. So imagine one is an hour away from the required meal break and a walk-in customer arrives. Basic common sense says to help the customer, but what happens if the tax return is not quite finished an hour later? Saying ‘Sorry but you will have to wait a half hour while I eat.’ is certainly not going to impress the customer well.

    In practice they have creative ways of handling that, but it is a nuisance.

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