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California Labor Law: Last Word on the Lunch Break Lawsuit

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Sacramento, CA The California Supreme Court finally handed down a unanimous decision on April 11, 2012, in Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court, after more than three years. The court ruled on two important California labor law issues: what it means to "provide" a meal period and when a second meal period is due.

Employers no doubt feel the decision was worth the wait - a suit that began in a lower court held that California labor employment law only requires employers to "supply or make available" meal periods. But the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement, which is charged with the responsibility of enforcing wage and hour laws in the state, has another point of view, stating that employers have "an affirmative obligation to ensure the workers are actually relieved of all duty" during meal breaks.

The questions were whether an employer simply provides for meal breaks or does the employer have a legal responsibility to enforce breaks?

The California Court of Appeals upheld the lower court ruling, which is consistent with several decisions at the federal level: California employees are not forced to take their meal breaks - but employers still have to pay them if they do work through their break. However, if an employee chooses to work through their lunch break, the court ruled that an employer "will not be liable for premium pay." Rather, "it will be liable for straight pay, and then only when it 'knew or reasonably should have known that the worker was working through the authorized meal period.'"

The court made it absolutely clear that the employer has no obligation to ensure that an employee does absolutely no work during his legally mandated lunch break.

Under California law - Labor Code section 512 and Wage Order No. 5 - employers are only obligated to provide hourly employees with a lunch break. That obligation is satisfied "if the employee (1) has at least 30 minutes uninterrupted, (2) is free to leave the premises, and (3) is relieved of all duty for the entire period."

"We conclude an employer's obligation is to relieve its employee of all duty, with the employee thereafter at liberty to use the meal period for whatever purpose he or she desires," Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar wrote in the unanimous decision. "But the employer need not ensure that no work is done."

The court's analysis of the lunch break lawsuit further explained what would happen if an employee chose to work through his lunch break. In a nutshell, a California employee can't file a lunch break lawsuit if he (1) freely chooses to work through lunch, and (2) gets paid his regular hourly rate for doing so.

The wage and hour case that morphed into the Lunch Break Lawsuit began in 2002 when The California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement launched an investigation into whether Brinker International Inc., a Dallas-based restaurant operator whose brands include Chili's Grill & Bar and Maggiano's Little Italy, was complying with its rest and meal break obligations. In the end, Brinker paid $10 million to settle a lawsuit by the state agency.

Then a separate lawsuit seeking class-action status was filed on behalf of employees at Brinker's restaurants in California. The lawsuit claimed that Brinkers failed to provide rest and meal breaks as required under state law, and forced some employees to work off the clock during meal periods.

A lawyer for the hourly employees at Brinker, said they are pleased with the Supreme Court decision. "We feel that it is a very good result for California workers," said attorney Kimberly Kralowec.

As for the second meal:

The Supreme Court ruled that the duty to provide a second meal period arises only after 10 hours of work. This ruling meant that the Court rejected the plaintiffs' contention that a second meal period must be provided within five hours after the end of the first meal period (known as the "rolling five-hour" theory that plaintiffs had proposed).

The Court weighed in on rest rules:

Employers must authorize and permit employees to take a 10-minute rest period for each four-hour period in which they work any amount of time in excess of two hours, unless an employee's total daily work time is less than 31/2 hours. Further, although the "general rule" in a typical 8-hour shift is that "one rest break should fall on either side of the meal break," the sequencing of meal and rest breaks may be altered depending on factors such as shift length."

To summarize the lunch break lawsuit:

Employers must provide off-duty meal periods, but need not ensure they are taken.

What does this ruling mean to those people who have wage and hour lawsuits regarding meal breaks pending? Stay tuned: LawyersandSettlements will ask a wage and hour attorney experienced with the California labor code to weigh in.

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23 Comments

  1. GWall
    May 21, 2018
    So here is my question, back in 2008 i signed a waiver at the job I have been at for 10 years. I have no problem that. However, my shifts have always exceeded 6 hours and I have never even had an actually 10 minute rest period. I work in a hotel btw. Is this legal?
  2. Charlotte
    April 27, 2016
    I have the same question as Veolis Carroll II... I'm forced to take a unpaid lunch break within the 4 hours total that I work. Is it legal for my employer to force me, or do I have the right to refuse?
  3. Heidi
    May 21, 2015
    I have read that employees should clock in and out for lunch as a precaution. However, if you are a large plant that has set break and lunch times, and those are posted by the time clocks should you require them to clock in and out for lunch? If each department completely shuts down at the same time everyday and the time clock reflects that would that be sufficient? If we require the entire plant to clock in and out for lunch, it takes away from their actual meal time.
  4. Tony Garlin
    May 14, 2015
    Man a lot of you sound like an employers nightmare, how do any of you even get hired? Ah my blood sugar, ah my disability, ah I work in a hospital and didn't read the fine print about the shift and state laws regarding it being different than regular work...ugh, so glad I didn't get into human resources.
  5. d d stroup
    February 1, 2015
    I have worked in a non-profit senior center in the kitchen. The cooks have no back up. They feel obligated to work without lunch as it puts more work on them. When the are on a break, office employees hunt them down and complain. We have volunteers that take up the slack. Our director will not hire an assistant cook or a janitor as she gets the 3or4 paid employees to do it.Being a kitchen, the only cook we have can't take a lunch if she wanted too.
  6. Jenny
    September 17, 2014
    My employer had us sign a meal waiver which I agree to work straight 8 hours instead of working 8with a 30minute lunch. However, some supervisors have us take our lunch break after working 6 hours. This company has about 400 employees which maybe half have or have had this problem. Several times we were told to take our lunches having to clock out with less than 30minutes left to clock out and go home. When this happens we have to clock back in and then clock out right away and go home. Also, we are called on the radio during our lunch breaks so we can conduct a task after our lunch break is over. I have brought these problems up to human resources saying we have interrupted breaks and that the supervisors are violating the laws but it's fallen onto deaf ears. This is a constant battle. What can I do besides complain again and hope someone listens?
  7. cathy m. boyer
    July 4, 2014
    I am in the same situtation as John Smith 1/25/2014. I have brought it to the attention of my superivors for the past 3 1/5 years and they just put into action for me to be relieved for breaks at night this past 1/2014. I just want the money that i paid into it already. I work 8.5 hours and get paid for 8 hours. What can I do? Am I entitle pay back for all those 1/2 hours I put in and did not get a lunch. I am a federal employee and work as a nurse in a Military Hospital.
  8. Debby
    May 8, 2014
    My husband's employer is forcing the workers in his company to sign a waiver of their rights to a lunch break but then still clock in and out as if they took a break. Is this legal? Sometimes they don't get a lunch due to the nature of their work, which is okay, but can the employer force everybody to sign this waiver and still require them to punch in and out even if they didn' take a lunch?
  9. Joy
    April 21, 2014
    I work in a hospital in Louisiana and I work 10 hours a day on Sundays and 13 hours per day on Monday and Tuesday and 6 hours on Wednesdays. I do not receive any breaks nor do I receive any lunch breaks. I was informed tha I need to call for a relief if I want to take a lunch break. This worked for about a month and yet I am back to no breaks/ lunches at all. On top of that I suffer with low blood sugar. Are there any laws or statues in Louisiana about lunch breaks for employees of hospitals?
  10. Stephen Wilkins
    February 8, 2014
    I work for a pkg delivery company UPS! We hv many drivers that choose too work through there lunch and break periods! The days are long at least 9 1/2 to 12 -13-14 hrs! The company with all there technolgy knowlingly and willingly allows this to go on without compensation!!! This is happening nationwide!!! What are your thoughts!!!
  11. John Smith
    January 25, 2014
    I work the night shit at a hospital. I dont get a lunch break or ten min. break because I am the only one there am i intitled to breaks. I do not get paid for the no lunches/breaks ie: work 8.5 hours and paid for 8. Please comment
  12. ron
    December 22, 2013
    my employer tells me because I start at 4:30 a.m.after the 1st of the year i'm required to have my lunch b4 9:30 a.m. I find it incredible the state now tells me when I eat. cant wait what stupid laws next for California.
  13. heather applegate
    December 14, 2013
    With the California meal break. Does an employee that works 10 hour shifts have to take the meal break before the 5 hour mark or can they wait till later like the 6th hour.
  14. G
    November 14, 2013
    I just started a security job, the other security officers and myself do not get a 30 minutes lunch break or 10 minute breaks. I asked my boss about this and he just says I don't take a break so you don't need one. Jobs are limited now of days and I don't know if I should bring it up to anyone.
  15. jay
    August 29, 2013
    my employer has me on a 10 hour shift, paying a daily rate not hourly. They mandate a 2 hour break..They only say they pay for 8 hours. Is this legal?
  16. Veolis Carroll II
    August 21, 2013
    I'm now forst into a part time shift which is 4 1/2 hours per day. I am told that I have to take a unpaid lunch break within that period. With such a short shift I normally work through to the end. Is is legal for this company to make me 30 min lunch break.
  17. Retha Morley
    July 17, 2013
    I work a 7 hour shift when I started the job back in Jan,2012 we had asked our supervisor what time were our breaks and lunch be, he said we only get one 10 min break 2 hours after our shift started and a 30 min unpaid meal break 4 hours after our shift. we asked don't we get a second break he said no.I thought I read that we got two breaks and a lunch but I could'nt find my paper work, so we went with that then a few months ago I found a break schedule paper posted that stated more than 6 hours worked in a day will get two 10 min breaks and one 30 min lunch break. Question is I no longer work there can I now request to be paid for those rest breaks not received?
  18. Joyce
    July 4, 2013
    I am currently being payed hourly. My employer wants to put me on salary. The guidelines to which, I will not be provided with a lunch break but I may find time in the day to sit down and eat for 10 minutes and get a smoke break anytime I like. Is this legal?
  19. jose Millan
    November 12, 2012
    I work grave yard at a hotel and i dont get a lunch break or ten min. break because i am the only one there am i intitled to breaks?
  20. Don
    November 1, 2012
    I prefer to work with no "rest" breaks. I work in a medical facility and there is enough give and take from schedules to fulfill my needs. Now all of a sudden my employee is trying to force rest breaks. Is this legal?
  21. michael millen
    October 21, 2012
    i have an eating problem i cant eat tell way after 1 or 2 in the after noon so i work 6 two 8 hrs and eat when i get home I DONT TAKE LUNCH can they make me.
  22. gary gallery
    October 17, 2012
    i prefer to work thru my eight or ten hour shift striagh thru what does this ruling mean for someone like myself? can my employer force me to take a lunch break or can i continue to work thru.
  23. Abel Hernandez
    September 10, 2012
    The following quote from the article: The California Court of Appeals upheld the lower court ruling, which is consistent with several decisions at the federal level: California employees are not forced to take their meal breaks—but employers still have to pay them if they do work through their break. However, if an employee chooses to work through their lunch break, the court ruled that an employer "will not be liable for premium pay." Does this mean employers must "pay" (cash compensation) or can the employer (county) offer compensatory time off in-lieu of pay?

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