Employees Don't Have to Take Meal Breaks: Cal. Sup. Ct.

By Stephanie Rabiner, Esq. on April 12, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

California employees don't have to take their meal breaks -- but employers still have to pay them if they do work.

The California Supreme Court has answered an important question in the area of meal break and wage law. Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court of San Diego, also known as the lunch break lawsuit, left the court to consider whether employers must ensure that an employee does absolutely no work during his legally-mandated lunch break.

Employers are under no such obligation.

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."

Employers have no obligation to stop the employee from working during this period, the court explained. The goal of the meal period is "to relieve the employee of all duty and relinquish any employer control over the employee and how he or she spends the time."

If an employee wants to spend her lunch hour working, she is free to do so.

"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 did not end there. It went on to explain what would happen if an employee chose to work through his lunch break.

An employer "will not be liable for premium pay." Instead, "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.'"

Put more simply, a California worker 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.

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