Employers in California are obligated under state law to provide uninterrupted meal breaks for their hourly workers after they are on the clock for more than five hours, but aren’t required to make sure those employees do no work during that period, the state’s highest court has ruled.
The decision, issued by the California Supreme Court on Thursday, comes in a closely watched wage-and-hour case involving Brinker International Inc., a Dallas-based restaurant operator whose brands include Chili’s Grill & Bar and Maggiano’s Little Italy.
State law requires an uninterrupted, 30-minute meal break if an hourly employee works more than five hours.
“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 court ruled.
The California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement launched an investigation in 2002 into whether Brinker was complying with its rest and meal break obligations. Brinker ultimately paid $10 million to settle a lawsuit by the state agency.
After the state investigation, a separate lawsuit seeking class-action status on behalf of cooks, wait staff and other hourly employees at Brinker’s restaurants in California was filed. That lawsuit alleged the company failed to provide rest and meal breaks as required under state law and forced some employees to work off-the-clock during meal periods.
“We’re glad to finally have resolution on the proper legal stands for meal period and rest breaks in our California restaurants,” said Roger Thomson, executive vice president and general counsel at Brinker.
“At Brinker, we pride ourselves on creating a positive work environment for our team members. Policies, including those for meal period and rest breaks, are and will continue to be reflective of that commitment.”
Kimberly A. Kralowec, a lawyer for the hourly employees, said they are pleased with the decision and consider it “a win.”
‘We feel that it is a very good result for California workers,” she said.
As part of its ruling, the California Supreme Court found that a lower court acted properly in certifying a subclass of workers who claimed rest breaks weren’t provided as required. However, it sent the case back to the lower court to consider the question of whether a subclass should be certified for workers who claimed they weren’t provided a meal break as required.
Ms. Kralowec said she is confident they’ll receive certification for the meal break class.
The state’s top court also said the lower court erred in certifying a third subclass of workers who claimed they were forced to work off-the-clock