While California employers anxiously wait for the California Supreme Court’s opinion in Brinker v. Superior Court (Hohnbaum) (and also Brinkley v. Public Storage, Inc.), what steps should they in regards to meal and rest break policies?
Record meal breaks.
This is already an obligation of California employers, and the Brinker decision does not change this obligation. Failure to do so creates a negative inference against the employer during litigation.
Employers should continue to have a strict written policy on providing meal and rest breaks.
Brinker’s policies, which were found to be valid by the appellate court, are a good example of policies California employers should have in place. For example, Brinker had a written policy titled “Break and Meal Period Policy for Employees in the State of California.” Brinker also required its employees to sign a form stating “I am entitled to a 30-minute meal period when I work a shift that is over five hours” and that “If I work over 3.5 hours during my shift, I understand that I am eligible for one [10-]minute rest break for each four hours that I work.” Brinker’s policy also stated that an employee’s failure to abide by the policy could result in termination. The court held that this ultimately was sufficient under California law to “provide” meal and rest breaks, only if the defendant has taken steps to establish and communicate the policy. Then if an employee fails to take a meal or rest break voluntarily, the employer is not liable for damages.
Continue to monitor that employees are actually taking meal breaks.
A good example of what not to do was shown by the defendant in Cicairos v. Summit Logistics, Inc. (2005) 133 Cal.App.4th 949. There, the defendant, a trucking company, had computerized systems on each truck that allowed it to track the driver’s location, speed, starts and stops, and time. The drivers had to input factors that the computers could not monitor independently, such as road conditions and traffic. The court held that by requiring its drivers to keep track of these factors, the defendant trucking company regulated the drivers’ activity, but failed to schedule meal breaks, did not include an activity code for meal breaks that would be an acceptable delay for deliveries. The company also did not monitor compliance. The court also noted that:
[W]here the employer has failed to keep records required by statute, the consequences for such failure should fall on the employer, not the employee. In such a situation, imprecise evidence by the employee can provide a sufficient basis for damages.
(citing Hernandez v. Mendoza (1988) 199 Cal.App.3d 721, 727). As a result of Cicairos’ failures, “most drivers at their meals while driving or skipped a meal nearly every working day” and the pressure from management made drivers feel that they should not stop for lunch. The court held that these facts negated defendant’s argument that the meal breaks were provided.
Make sure management knows about and enforces these rules.
Employers should have discussions with their front-line managers about meal and rest breaks to ensure that the policy is being effectively administrated.
Policies should require employees to come forward to report if they have been forced to work through a meal break.
This would help to some degree when the employees claim that they were forced to work through their meal and rest breaks.