Employers Statewide Relieved by Today’s Meal-and-Rest Break Decision


CERRITOS, CALIF.– In a move that is sure to be welcome news to thousands of California businesses of all sizes, the state Supreme Court ruled today that while employers have a duty to provide workers with meal-and-rest breaks, they are not required to force the workers to take them.

The long-anticipated ruling in Brinker Restaurant v. Superior Court came as a huge relief to employers in a multitude of industries who have waited for years to gain certainty on what obligation that had to provide employees with meal periods. The court’s ruling spares employers from what could have been devastating economic impact, particularly for those in employee-dense industries such as construction, trucking, retail, hospitality, tourism, entertainment and health care.

According to the National Restaurant Association, restaurant jobs constitute 10 percent of employment in California, generating more than 1.4 million jobs in 62,000 eating and drinking establishments. The state’s construction industry with 571, 600 employees is expected to bring in 412 billion in revenue according to McGraw-Hill Construction’s Dodge 2012 Construction Outlook.

Robert Roginson, a management lawyer and partner with the firm of Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo (AALRR) commended the court on its ruling noting that it finally makes clear employers’ duties when it comes to meal-and-rest breaks.

“Today, the Court issued a very clear and practical decision that should bring enormous relief to California employers,” says Roginson, a former chief counsel to the California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement. “The Court affirmed that while California law guarantees employees the right to take meal breaks, employers should not be required to police them,” he says.

Thomas Holsman, Chief Executive Officer of Associated General Contractors of California, a trade association of many of the largest union and non-union private and public works contractors in the State of California says, “The California Supreme Court issued a favorable decision for employers. Construction employees have long been provided meal and rest periods, and this decision upheld that enforcement without flexibility would be impractical for employers to run a construction project efficiently while preserving and protecting the health and safety of workers.”

During his tenure with the agency, Roginson authored an amicus brief on the Brinker case for the California Labor Commissioner supporting an interpretation of meal period requirements that employers must only provide employees with 30-minute meal periods that are free of employer control.

The case, originally filed as Hohnbaum v. Brinker Restaurant Corporation, pitted five employees against restaurant giant Brinker International, the parent company of Chili’s Restaurants and an empire of more than 1,500 restaurants. The complaint, later certified as a class action suit, potentially included up to 63,000 current and former employees.*

At issue in the case was whether state law directing employers to “provide” a meal break meant simply that they must make a break available and give workers the right to pass on it if they chose to. Or, as the plaintiffs contended and the courts supported, did the language mean that employers had to ensure their workers took 30-minute uninterrupted breaks, and face penalties if they didn’t? More than a thousand separate class action suits were filed in response to the ambiguous nature of the meal-and-rest break language, representing a dramatic 30 to 40 percent of all class action suits filed.

Employers worried throughout the long course of the litigation that requiring the enforcement of timed rest-and-break periods was an impractical burden that many found simply impossible to meet. Many employees found themselves equally concerned, including restaurant workers who faced the prospect of having to abandon tables and forgo tips while their restaurants were at their busiest, or nurses who might have had to leave to take breaks midway into important patient procedures.

Roginson’s amicus brief outlined other “harmful and absurd results,” including the considerable economic toll should businesses be forced to scramble to come up with procedures to comply with a new standard. An employer may have had to pay an employee one hour of pay if the employee failed to take a full 30-minute meal period that was recorded and commenced before a fifth hour of work, his brief suggested. Or businesses could have also had to employ supervisors whose sole duties were to monitor meal periods and discipline employees who failed to take them.

The court’s ruling brings some much-needed good news to California businesses, already struggling to recover from the recession despite high sales and income taxes in a state that is home to one-third of the nation’s 40 most expensive cities to do business in.**

“The ebb and flow of business in dining establishments is contingent upon customer volume at a given time. Providing oversight to each and every employee’s meal-and-rest break would have been a huge challenge for employers all over California,” Roginson says. “This ruling strikes the right balance, ensuring employees are guaranteed meal breaks, while still giving them the flexibility to work when they have the greatest potential for commissions or tips.”

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