Employers Shalt Not "Encourage" Employees to Work During Meal Breaks -- Brinker v. Superior Court

The California Supreme Court's long-awaited decision in Brinker v. Superior Court finally addressed the question of what an employer must do to effectively "provide" a meal break and thereby avoid the one-hour of pay due as premium or penalty pay.

In Brinker the plaintiffs advocated for a rule that merely allowing an employee to work during his meal period must trigger a penalty.  The defense bar advocated for a rule that no penalty is owed unless the employer has affirmatively "forced" the employee to work. The Court however went for a middle ground.  Under the new rule an employer must take certain affirmative steps (and refrain from others) in order to meet its legal obligation to provide a compliant meal break. 

What An Employer Must Do to Avoid A Penalty.

In particular, the employer must have a policy and affirmatively create the actual conditions that will "relieve the employee of all duty" and allow him to engage in any personal business or leave the premises during for the entire 30-minute break period.   If an employer takes these afirmative steps in good faith and the employee nevertheless performs work during his break no penalty is owed.    

What An Employer Cannot Do Without Paying a Penalty.

Many employers are clearly over-reading Brinker as simply allowing them to propound a policy and then having their workers "waive" their breaks.   In reality, Brinker is replete with warnings that this "waiver" defense will be difficult to establish and will be forfeited if the company engages in any practices that have the intent or effect of "undermining" break rights.  These forbidden practices include:

  • "discouraging" or "impeding" workers from taking breaks.
  • “pressuring employees to perform their duties in ways that omit breaks.”
  • “creating incentives to forego” breaks.
  • “otherwise encouraging the skipping of legally protected breaks.”

 Courts and parties will have to grapple with the meaning of these terms in individual cases and different industries.  But it seems to me that meal break litigation will start to resemble nothing so much as Title VII disparate impact cases -- i.e., the focus of litigation will be on whether facially neutral business practices may have crossed the line into having an impermissible (and perhaps unintended) effect on employee rights.  

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