Cal Supreme Court Says Employees Can Work Through Lunch Break

By Robyn Hagan Cain on April 12, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The California Supreme Court ruled today that employers must make meal breaks available, but they don’t have to force wage workers to take a break for a meal.

The decision resolves the nine-year-old Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court of San Diego lawsuit. The plaintiffs in the case argued that Brinker, which owns restaurants like Chili’s Grill & Bar and Maggiano’s Little Italy, failed to provide employees the breaks, or premium wages in lieu of breaks, that they were guaranteed by law.

California Labor Code section 512 and Wage Order No. 5 requires employers 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."

In 2001, California made the laws regarding worker breaks even tougher by imposing a monetary penalty on employers who violate mandatory break laws. Under that requirement, employers must pay one hour of wages for a missed half-hour meal break, reports USA Today.

Brinker, however, claimed that it had not violated the law because it let each employee decide whether to take or work through a lunch break.

Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar wrote for the unanimous court, "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. But the employer need not ensure that no work is done."

The decision, which will affect thousands of wage workers throughout California, is expected to curb the number of class action lawsuits over missed meal breaks, according to The Wall Street Journal.

We suspect that there will be at least a few unscrupulous managers who abuse this decision, and try to coerce their employees to work through lunch breaks. How do you think the courts will respond to such scenarios? In an employment dispute, the employer carries the burden of proving the affirmative defense that an employee chose to work through lunch; does this case confuse that burden?

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