You don’t need to force your employees to take meal breaks.
Generally, the news is good for employers. Just a few hours ago, in Brinker Restaurant Corp., v. Superior Court, the California Supreme Court provided long-awaited answers to some important and hotly litigated meal and rest break issues in California for non-exempt employees. Specifically, the Court clarified when meal and rest periods are required, and what an employer must do to provide meal periods (the Court also addressed class certification requirements as well). Here is some of the more important language from the opinion regarding meal and rest breaks:
“An employer‟s duty with respect to meal breaks under both [Labor Code] section 512, subdivision (a) and Wage Order No. 5 is an obligation to provide a meal period to its employees. The employer satisfies this obligation if it relieves its employees of all duty, relinquishes control over their activities and permits them a reasonable opportunity to take an uninterrupted 30-minute break, and does not impede or discourage them from doing so.”
“On the other hand, the employer is not obligated to police meal breaks and ensure no work thereafter is performed. Bona fide relief from duty and the relinquishing of control satisfies the employer‟s obligations, and work by a relieved employee during a meal break does not thereby place the employer in violation of its obligations and create liability for premium pay under Wage Order No. 5, subdivision 11(B) and Labor Code section 226.7, subdivision (b).”
“Proof an employer had knowledge of employees working through meal periods will not alone subject the employer to liability for premium pay; employees cannot manipulate the flexibility granted them by employers to use their breaks as they see fit to generate such liability. On the other hand, an employer may not undermine a formal policy of providing meal breaks by pressuring employees to perform their duties in ways that omit breaks.”
WHAT THIS MEANS: Employers need not “ensure” employees take a meal break. Instead, employers should relieve workers of all duties, and not impede employee’s ability to enjoy an uninterrupted 30-minute meal period. If the employee voluntarily chooses to work during the meal period, the employer is not in violation of the law unless the employer pressured the employee to work during the meal period, or undermined a policy providing for such meal periods.
The Court also clarified that the law requires “a first meal period no later than the end of an employee‟s fifth hour of work, and a second meal period no later than the end of an employee‟s 10th hour of work.” The Court rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that the law imposed additional timing requirements.
“Employees are entitled to 10 minutes’ rest for shifts from three and one-half to six hours in length, 20 minutes for shifts of more than six hours up to 10 hours, 30 minutes for shifts of more than 10 hours up to 14 hours, and so on.”
“Construing the plain language of the operative wage order, we find no such requirement [that employers have a legal duty to permit their employees a rest period before any meal period] and agree with the Court of Appeal, which likewise rejected this contention.”
WHAT THIS MEANS: For example, if an employee works an 8-hour shift, the employee is entitled to two 10 minute rest periods. Generally, “one rest break should fall on either side of the meal break.” And, the rest periods should be provided in the middle of each work period “insofar as practicable.”
THREE EASY STEPS EMPLOYERS SHOULD TAKE:
(1) Employers should make sure their Employee Handbooks and policies reflect that the company provides the requisite meal and rest periods to eligible employees, and the circumstances for, and timing of, each period.
(2) Employers should make sure that managers/supervisors are trained properly to deal with scheduling non-exempt employees’ work shifts and breaks. Managers/supervisors should also be trained to ensure that they are not violating company policies or otherwise making an employee believe that the employee should or must perform work during a meal period.
(3) Employers should also make sure, as always, to keep accurate and updated records of when each non-exempt employee clocks in/out for each shift, and clocks in/out for each rest and meal period. This step requires training managers/supervisors, and good communication with each non-exempt employee.