Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court (Hohnbaum) was finally decided by the California Supreme Court. The decision was anxiously awaited by many due to its clarifications of California employment laws regarding the duties employers have regarding offering meal and rest breaks, and when the breaks need to be taken. The primary holding of the case is that employers do not need to ensure that no work is performed during meal breaks. The Court, however, cautioned employers that they cannot undermine formal policies by pressuring employees to work during breaks. Also of interest, as explained below, the Court provided a clarification of the rate that employees accrue rest breaks, which varies from how most employers interpreted the rest break requirement.
Employers Have No Duty To Ensure Meal Breaks Are Taken
The Plaintiff in the case argued that Brinker had to “ensure that work stops for a the required thirty minute” meal period. Alternatively, Brinker argued that under California law employers only had to provide meal periods and would not incur any liability if the employee did not take the break. The Court explained:
[Plaintiff] Hohnbaum contends an employer is obligated to “ensure that work stops for the required thirty minutes.” Brinker, in a position adopted by the Court of Appeal, contends an employer is obligated only to “make available” meal periods, with no responsibility for whether they are taken. We conclude that under Wage Order No. 5 and Labor Code section 512, subdivision (a), an employer must relieve the employee of all duty for the designated period, but need not ensure that the employee does no work.
The Court clarified that employers do not need to ensure that employees do not perform any work during their break:
The difficulty with the view that an employer must ensure no work is done—i.e., prohibit work—is that it lacks any textual basis in the wage order or statute. While at one time the IWC’s wage orders contained language clearly imposing on employers a duty to prevent their employees from working during meal periods, we have found no order in the last half-century continuing that obligation. Indeed, the obligation to ensure employees do no work may in some instances be inconsistent with the fundamental employer obligations associated with a meal break: to relieve the employee of all duty and relinquish any employer control over the employee and how he or she spends the time.
The Court also provided further clarification as to what meal period obligations employers have:
[T]he wage order’s meal period requirement 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.
Therefore, the Court held:
To summarize: An employer’s duty with respect to meal breaks under both 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. What will suffice may vary from industry to industry, and we cannot in the context of this class certification proceeding delineate the full range of approaches that in each instance might be sufficient to satisfy the law.
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).
However, the Court also provided a warning to employers that, “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.”
Meal Period Timing Requirements
The Court also clarified when meal periods must be provided. The Court rejected Plaintiff’s argument that Brinker’s policy of “early lunching” violated the Labor Code. Early lunching is which is when employers allow employees to take their meal break within the first hour or two of arriving to work, and then have the employees continue to work to the end of their shift without taking another meal period. The Plaintiff argued that the Labor Code requires that employees take a meal period every five consecutive hours of work. In rejecting the Plaintiff’s argument, the Court stated:
Hohnbaum contends section 512 should be read as requiring as well a second meal period no later than five hours after the end of a first meal period if a shift is to continue. The text does not permit such a reading.
The Court explained the timing requirements of meal periods as follows:
We conclude that, absent waiver, section 512 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.
Rate Rest Periods Accrue To Employees
The Court began its explanation of the rate at which rest breaks must be given to employees by examining Wage Order No. 5. The Court focused in on subdivision 12(A) of the wage order, which provides:
Every employer shall authorize and permit all employees to take rest periods, which insofar as practicable shall be in the middle of each work period. The authorized rest period time shall be based on the total hours worked daily at the rate of ten (10) minutes net rest time per four (4) hours or major fraction thereof. However, a rest period need not be authorized for employees whose total daily work time is less than three and one-half (3½) hours.
The Court explained that “major fraction thereof” as applied to the four hour period referenced in the Wage Order means “any amount of time in excess of two hours – i.e., any fraction greater than half.” Therefore, by applying this calculation under the wage order, the Court held:
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.
Timing Of Rest Breaks
The Court disagreed with the Plaintiff’s argument that rest breaks had to occur before meal breaks under the law. The Court held that the only “constraint on timing is that rest breaks must fall in the middle of work periods ‘insofar as practicable.’” The Court explained:
Hohnbaum asserts employers have a legal duty to permit their employees a rest period before any meal period. Construing the plain language of the operative wage order, we find no such requirement and agree with the Court of Appeal, which likewise rejected this contention.
Either the rest period must fall before the meal period or it must fall after. Neither text nor logic dictates an order for these, nor does anything in the policies underlying the wage and hour laws compel the conclusion that a rest break at the two-hour mark and a meal break at the four-hour mark of such a shift is lawful, while the reverse, a meal break at the two-hour mark and a rest break at the four-hour mark, is per se illegal.
The entire decision can be read here.